Enantioselective synthesis, also called chiral synthesis, asymmetric synthesis or stereoselective synthesis, is defined by IUPAC as: a chemical reaction (or reaction sequence) in which one or more new elements of chirality are formed in a substrate molecule and which produces the stereoisomeric (enantiomeric or diastereoisomeric) products in unequal amounts.
Put more simply: it is the formation of a compound as single enantiomer or diastereomer.
Enantioselective synthesis is a key process in modern chemistry and is particularly important in the field of pharmaceuticals, as the different enantiomers or diastereomers of a molecule often have different biological activity.
Many of the building blocks of biological systems, such as sugars and amino acids, are produced exclusively as one enantiomer. As a result of this living systems possess a high degree of chemical chirality and will often react differently with the various enantiomers of a given compound. Examples of this selectivity include:
- Flavour: the artificial sweetener aspartame has two enantiomers. L-aspartame tastes sweet yet D-aspartame is tasteless
- Odor: R-(–)-carvone smells like spearmint yet S-(+)-carvone, smells like caraway.
- Drug effectiveness: the antidepressant drug Citalopram is sold as a racemic mixture. However studies have shown that only the (S)-(+) enantiomer is responsible for the drugs beneficial effects.
- Drug safety: D-penicillamine is used in chelation therapy and for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. However L-penicillamine is toxic as it inhibits the action of pyridoxine.
As such enantioselective synthesis is of great importance; but it can also be difficult to achieve. Enantiomers possess identical energies and hence should be produced in equal amounts by an undirected process, leading to a racemic mixture. A common solution is to introduce a chiral feature which will promote the formation of one enantiomer over another, via interactions at the transition state. This is known as asymmetric induction and can involve chiral features in the substrate, reagent, catalyst or environment and works by making the activation energy required to form one enantiomer lower than that of the opposing enantiomer.
Asymmetric induction can occur intramolecularly when given a chiral starting material. This behaviour can be exploited, especially when the goal is to make several consecutive chiral centres to give a specific enantiomer of a specific diastereomer. An aldol reaction, for example, is inherently diastereoselective; if the aldehyde is enantiopure, the resulting aldol adduct is diastereomerically and enantiomerically pure.
However, despite its prevalence asymmetric induction is not always required for enantioselective synthesis, with the most obvious example being in chiral pool synthesis.
Enantioselective catalysis 
In general, enantioselective catalysis (known traditionally as asymmetric catalysis) refers to the use of chiral coordination complexes as catalysts. It is very commonly encountered, as it is effective for a broader range of transformations than any other method of enantioselective synthesis. The catalysts are typically rendered chiral by using chiral ligands, however it is also possible to generate chiral-at-metal complexes using simpler achiral ligands. Most enantioselective catalysts are effective at low concentrations making them well suited to industrial scale synthesis; as even exotic and expensive catalysts can be used affordably. Perhaps the most versatile example of enantioselective synthesis is asymmetric hydrogenation, which is able to reduce a wide variety of functional groups.
With only 75 natural metals in existence (and not all of these showing extensive catalytic activities) the design of new catalysts is very much dominated by the development of new classes of ligands. However, certain ligands have been found to be effective in a wide range of reactions, many of which proceed via different mechanisms. These are often referred to as 'privileged ligands' and include examples such as BINOL, Salen and BOX.
Chiral auxiliaries 
A chiral auxiliary is an organic compound which couples to the starting material to form new compound which can then undergo enantioselective reactions via intramolecular asymmetric induction. At the end of the reaction the auxiliary is removed, under conditions that will not cause racemization of the product. It is typically then recovered for future use.
Chiral auxiliaries must be used in stoichiometric amounts to be effective and require additional synthetic steps to append and remove the auxiliary. However in some cases the only available stereoselective methodology relies on chiral auxiliaries and these reactions tend to be versatile and very well-studied, allowing the most time-efficient access to enantiomerically pure products. Additionally, the products of auxiliary-directed reactions are diastereomers, which enables their facile separation by methods such as column chromatography or crystallization.
Biocatalysis makes use of biological compounds, ranging from isolated enzymes to living cells, to perform chemical transformations. The advantages of these reagents include very high ee's and regent specificity, as well as mild operating conditions and low environmental impact. Biocatalysts are more commonly used in industry than in academic research; for example in the production of statins. The high reagent specificity can be a problem however; as it often requires that a wide range of biocatalysts be screened before an effective reagent is found.
Enantioselective organocatalysis 
Organocatalysis refers to a form of catalysis, where the rate of a chemical reaction is increased by an organic compound consisting of carbon, hydrogen, sulfur and other non-metal elements. When the organocatalyst is chiral enantioselective synthesis can be achieved; for example a number of carbon-carbon bond forming reactions become enantioselective in the presence of proline with the aldol reaction being a prime example. Organocatalysis often employs natural compounds and secondary amines as chiral catalysts; these are inexpensive and environmentally friendly, as no metals are involved.
Chiral pool synthesis 
Chiral pool synthesis is one of the simplest approaches for enantioselective synthesis, as it does not involve asymmetric induction. Instead a chiral starting material is manipulated through successive reactions, using achiral reagents, to obtain the desired target molecule. This can meet the criteria for enantioselective synthesis when a new chiral species is created, such as in an SN2 reaction.
Chiral pool synthesis is especially attractive for target molecules having similar chirality to a relatively inexpensive naturally occurring building-block such as a sugar or amino acid. However, the number of possible reactions the molecule can undergo is restricted and tortuous synthetic routes may be required (e.g. Oseltamivir total synthesis). This approach also requires a stoichiometric amount of the enantiopure starting material, which can be expensive if it is not naturally occurring.
Alternative approaches 
Apart from enantioselective synthesis, chiraly pure materials can be obtained by chiral resolution. This involves the isolation of one enantiomer from a racemic mixture by any of a number of methods. Where the cost in time and money of making such racemic mixtures is low, or if both enantiomers may find use, this approach may remain cost-effective.
Separation and analysis of enantiomers 
The two enantiomers of a molecule possess the same physical properties (e.g. melting point, boiling point, polarity etc) and so behave identically to each other. As a result they will migrate with an identical Rf in thin layer chromatography and have identical retention times in HPLC and GC. Their NMR and IR spectra are identical.
This can make it very difficult to determine whether a process has produced a single enantiomer (and crucially which enantiomer it is) as well as making it hard to separate enantiomers from a reaction which has not been 100% enantioselective. Fortunately, enantiomers behave differently in the presence of other chiral materials and this can be exploited to allow their separation and analysis.
Enantiomers do not migrate identically on chiral chromatographic media, such as quartz or standard media that has been chirally modified. This forms the basis of chiral column chromatography, which can be used on a small scale to allow analysis via GC and HPLC, or on a large scale to separate chirally impure materials. However this process can require large amount of chiral packing material which can be expensive. A common alternative is to use a chiral derivatizing agent to convert the enantiomers into a diastereomers, in much the same way as chiral auxiliaries. These have different physical properties and hence can be separated and analysed using conventional methods. Special chiral derivitizing agents know as 'chiral resolution agents' are used in the NMR spectroscopy of stereoisomers, these typically involve coordination to chiral europium complexes such as Eu(fod)3 and Eu(hfc)3.
The enantiomeric excess of a substance can also be determined using certain optical methods. The oldest method for doing this is to use a polarimeter to compare the level of optical rotation in the product against a 'standard' of known composition. It is also possible to perform ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy of stereoisomers by exploiting the Cotton effect.
One of the most accurate ways of determining the chirality of compound is to determine its absolute configuration by Xray Crystallography. However this is a labour intensive process which requires that a suitable single crystal be grown.
Inception (1815 - 1905) 
In 1815 the French physicist Jean-Baptiste Biot showed that certain chemicals could rotate the plane of a beam of polarised light, a property call optical activity. The nature of this property remained a mystery until 1848, when Louis Pasteur proposed that it had a molecular basis originating from some form of dissymmetry, with the term chirality being coined by Lord Kelvin a year later. The origin of chirality itself was finally determined in 1874, when Jacobus Henricus van 't Hoff and Joseph Le Bel independently proposed the tetrahedral geometry of carbon (models up until this time had been 2D) and theorised that the arrangement of groups around this tetrahedron could dictate the optical activity of the resulting compound.
In 1894 Hermann Emil Fischer outlined the concept of asymmetric induction; in which he correctly ascribed selective the formation of D-glucose by plants to be due to the influence of optically active substances within chlorophyll. Fischer also successfully performed what would now be regarded as the first example of enantioselective synthesis, by enantioselectively elongating sugars via a process which would eventually become the Kiliani–Fischer synthesis.
However, the first enantioselective synthesis is often attributed to Willy Marckwald; who in 1904 described the enantioselective decarboxylation of the malonic acid 2-ethyl-2-methylmalonic acid, mediated by brucine. The reason for this is historical, as at the time enantioselective synthesis was seen in terms of vitalism. This argued that natural and artificial compounds were fundamentally different and that chirality could only exist in natural compounds. Ulike Fischer, Marckwald had performed an enantioselective reaction upon an achiral and artificial starting material, making this the first successful enantioselective reaction by the standards of the time.
Much of this early work was published in German, however contemporary English accounts can be found in the papers of Alexander McKenzie.
Early work (1905 - 1965) 
The development of enantioselective synthesis was initially slow, largely due to the limited range of techniques available for their separation and analysis. Diastereomers possess different physical properties, allowing separation by conventional means, however at the time enantiomers could only be separated by spontaneous resolution (where enantiomers separate upon crystallisation) or kinetic resolution (where one enantiomer is selectively destroyed). The only tool for analysing enantiomers was optical activity using a polarimeter, a method which provides no structural data.
It was not until the 1950's that major progress really began. Driven in part by chemists such as R. B. Woodward and Vladimir Prelog but also by the development of new techniques. The first of these was Xray Crystallography, which was used to determine the absolute configuration of an organic compound by Johannes Bijvoet in 1951. Chiral chromatography was introduced a year later by Dalgliesh, who used paper chromatography to separate chiral amino acids. Although Dalgliesh was not the first to observe such separations, he correctly attributed the separation of enantiomers to differential retention by the chiral cellulose. This was expanded upon in 1960, when Klem and Reed first reported the use of chirally-modified silica gel for chiral HPLC chromatographic separation.
While it had long been known that the different enantiomers of a drug could have different activities, this was not accounted for in early drug design and testing. However following the thalidomide disaster the development and licensing of drugs changed dramatically.
First synthesized in 1953, thalidomide was widely prescribed for morning sickness from 1957 to 1962, but was soon found to be seriously teratogenic, eventually causing birth defects in more than 10,000 babies. The disaster prompted many counties to introduce tougher rules for the testing and licensing of drugs, such as the Kefauver-Harris Amendment (U.S.) and Directive 65/65/EEC1 (E.U.).
Early research into the teratogenic mechanism, using mice, suggested that one enantiomer of thalidomide was teratogenic while the other possessed all the therapeutic activity. This theory was later shown to be incorrect and has now been superseded by a body of research. However it raised the importance of chirality in drug design, leading to increased research into enantioselective synthesis.
Modern Age (1965 - Present Day) 
The Cahn–Ingold–Prelog priority rules (often abbreviated as the CIP system) were first published in 1966; allowing enantiomers to be more easily and accurately described. The same year saw first successful enantiomeric separation by gas chromatography an important development as the technology was in common use at the time.
Metal catalysed enantioselective synthesis was pioneered by William S. Knowles, Ryōji Noyori and K. Barry Sharpless; for which they would receive the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Knowles and Noyori began with the development of asymmetric hydrogenation, which they developed independently in 1968. Knowles replaced the achiral triphenylphosphine ligands in Wilkinson's catalyst with chiral phosphine ligands. This experimental catalyst was employed in an asymmetric hydrogenation with a modest 15% enantiomeric excess. Knowles was also the first to apply enantioselective metal catalysis to industrial-scale synthesis, while working for the Monsanto Company he developed an enantioselective hydrogenation step for the production of L-DOPA:
|Knowles: Asymmetric hydrogenation (1968)||Noyori: Enantioselective cyclopropanation (1968)|
Noyori devised a copper complex using a chiral Schiff base ligand, which he used for the metal-carbenoid cyclopropanation of styrene. In common with Knowles' findings, Noyori's results for the enantiomeric excess for this first-generation ligand were disappointingly low: 6%. However continued research eventually led to the development of the Noyori asymmetric hydrogenation reaction.
Sharpless complemented these reduction reactions by developing a range of asymmetric oxidations (Sharpless epoxidation, Sharpless asymmetric dihydroxylation, Sharpless oxyamination) during the 1970's to 1980's. With the asymmetric oxyamination reaction, using osmium tetroxide, being the earliest.
During the same period, methods were developed to allow the analysis of chiral compounds by NMR; either using chiral derivatizing agents, such as Mosher's acid, or europium based shift reagents, of which Eu(DPM)3 was the earliest.
Chiral auxiliaries were introduced by E.J. Corey in 1978 and featured prominantly in the work of Dieter Enders. Around the same enantioselective organocatalysis was developed, with pioneering work including the Hajos–Parrish–Eder–Sauer–Wiechert reaction. Enzyme-catalyzed enantioselective reactions became more and more common during the 1980's, particularly in industry, with their applications including asymmetric ester hydrolysis with pig-liver esterase. The emerging technology of genetic engineering has allowed the tailoring of enzymes to specific processes, permitting an increased range of selective transformations. For example in the asymmetric hydrogenation of statin precursors.
See also 
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- Spontaneous absolute asymmetric synthesis, the synthesis of chiral products from achiral precursors and without the use of optically active catalysts or auxiliaries. It is relevant to the discussion homochirality in nature.
- Tacticity, a property of polymers which originates from enantioselective synthesis
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