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Phys Chem Chem Phys. 2011 Jan 21;13(3):831-8. doi: 10.1039/c0cp01388a. Epub 2010 Oct 28.

Selective adsorption and chiral amplification of amino acids in vermiculite clay-implications for the origin of biochirality.

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Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PR, UK.


Smectite clays are hydrated layer silicates that, like micas, occur naturally in abundance. Importantly, they have readily modifiable interlayer spaces that provide excellent sites for nanochemistry. Vermiculite is one such smectite clay and in the presence of small chain-length alkyl-NH(3)Cl ions forms sensitive, 1-D ordered model clay systems with expandable nano-pore inter-layer regions. These inter-layers readily adsorb organic molecules. n-Propyl NH(3)Cl vermiculite clay gels were used to determine the adsorption of alanine, lysine and histidine by chiral HPLC. The results show that during reaction with fresh vermiculite interlayers, significant chiral enrichment of either L- and D-enantiomers occurs depending on the amino acid. Chiral enrichment of the supernatant solutions is up to about 1% per pass. In contrast, addition to clay interlayers already reacted with amino acid solutions resulted in little or no change in D/L ratio during the time of the experiment. Adsorption of small amounts of amphiphilic organic molecules in clay inter-layers is known to produce Layer-by-Layer or Langmuir-Blodgett films. Moreover atomistic simulations show that self-organization of organic species in clay interlayers is important. These non-centrosymmetric, chirally active nanofilms may cause clays to act subsequently as chiral amplifiers, concentrating organic material from dilute solution and having different adsorption energetics for D- and L-enantiomers. The additional role of clays in RNA oligomerization already postulated by Ferris and others, together with the need for the organization of amphiphilic molecules and lipids noted by Szostak and others, suggests that such chiral separation by clays in lagoonal environments at normal biological temperatures might also have played a significant role in the origin of biochirality.

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