The Asymmetry of Life

On My Mind / by Marcelo Gleiser /

Look into a mirror and you’ll simultaneously see the familiar and the alien: an image of you, but with left and right reversed.

Image courtesy of Ben Lansky

Left-right inequality has significance far beyond that of mirror images, touching on the heart of existence itself. From subatomic physics to life, nature prefers asymmetry to symmetry. There are no equal liberties when neutrinos and proteins are concerned. In the case of neutrinos, particles that spill out of the sun’s nuclear furnace and pass through you by the trillions every second, only leftward-spinning ones exist. Why? No one really knows.

Proteins are long chains of amino acids that can be either left- or right-handed. Here, handedness has to do with how these molecules interact with polarized light, rotating it either to the left or to the right. When synthesized in the lab, amino acids come out fifty-fifty. In living beings, however, all proteins are made of left-handed amino acids. And all sugars in RNA and DNA are right-handed. Life is fundamentally asymmetric.

Is the handedness of life, its chirality (think chiromancer, which means “palm reader”), linked to its origins some 3.5 billion years ago, or did it develop after life was well on its way? If one traces life’s origins from its earliest stages, it’s hard to see how life began without molecular building blocks that were “chirally pure,” consisting solely of left- or right-handed molecules. Indeed, many models show how chirally pure amino acids may link to form precursors of the first protein-like chains. But what could have selected left-handed over right-handed amino acids? My group’s research suggests that early Earth’s violent environmental upheavals caused many episodes of chiral flip-flopping. The observed left-handedness of terrestrial amino acids is probably a local fluke. Elsewhere in the universe, perhaps even on other planets and moons of our solar system, amino acids may be right-handed. But only sampling such material from many different planetary platforms will determine whether, on balance, biology is lefthanded, right-handed, or ambidextrous.

Marcelo Gleiser is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Dartmouth College. His latest book is A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe.

Originally published September 7, 2010

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