Chemical chirality in popular fiction

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The theme of chemical chirality, or the "handedness" of the molecular structure of certain substances, appears in many works of fiction.


Although little was known about chemical chirality in the time of Lewis Carroll, his work Through the Looking-glass contains a prescient reference to the differing biological activities of enantiomeric drugs: "Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn't good to drink," Alice said to her cat. A supplemental story to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen made reference to this, mentioning in passing that after her return from the mirror world, her body was mirror-flipped, presumably down to the molecular level, as she was unable to digest food afterwards.

In Arthur C. Clarke's short story "Technical Error" (also titled "The Reversed Man"), a technician working on a giant superconducting generator is accidentally "inverted" into his mirror image, right down to the coins in his pocket. When he is found to be starving despite an apparently-healthy diet, the culprit is determined to be the amino acids in his food, which are natural amino acids and opposite in chirality to those his body now requires.

Isaac Asimov's short story "Left to Right" concerns an unknown "change in parity", and mentions biological incompatibilities due to chirality as one possible consequence.

In Dorothy L. Sayers's novel The Documents in the Case, a murder is committed that is designed to appear as accidental death from eating poisonous mushrooms containing muscarine. The case is proved to be murder because the muscarine found in the deceased's stomach is racemic and therefore synthetic.

In James Blish's Star Trek novella Spock Must Die!, Spock's mirror-duplicate is later discovered to have stolen chemical reagents from the medical bay to convert certain amino acids to opposite-chirality isomers that his metabolism requires.

In Spider Robinson's Callahan's Place short story "Mirror/rorriM On the Wall", a mirror is constructed of thiotimoline which leads to a parallel but inverted universe. A character attempts to smuggle food between the two universes to sell as a diet product, since the amino acids are reversed and provide no caloric value.

In Larry Niven's Destiny's Road, the title planet's indigenous life is based upon right-handed proteins. When human colonists arrive from Earth via a generation ship, extreme measures are taken to permit the colony's survival. A peninsula is sterilized with a lander's fusion drive, creating the titular "road" out of fused bedrock. The area is then reseeded with Earth life to provide the colonists with food. Though the soil lacks potassium due to other factors, necessitating supplements that produce a hydraulic empire common to Niven's fiction, the colony otherwise prospers. Native viruses and bacteria cannot infect colonists, resulting in longer lifespans. Sealife quickly recovers, and is consumed by the colonists as a "diet" food, as their digestive systems cannot metabolize it into fat.

Marti Steussy's Dreams of Dawn (1988) has a similar premise, where the locals evolved based on right-handed amino acids.

The denouement of Poul Anderson's After Doomsday relies partly on chirality.

The plot of Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand centers around a device called the Rhennius Machine, which reverses objects that pass through it, down to the atomic level. It is mentioned that an earlier version of the machine destroyed itself by reversing matter to antimatter.

Daniel Suarez's novel Change Agent includes a character "the Mirror man" who is immune to neurotoxins due to his mirrored chirality.

In Damon Knight's A For Anything, Leroy Platt uses a matter duplicator to make food; "Eating the food, too: Why not? Just put it through twice, make sure you don't get any reversed peptide chains."

Computer games[edit]

In the Trauma Center series of games, doctors test for a "chiral reaction" in order to determine whether or not a patient is infected with "Gangliated Utrophin Immuno Latency Toxin," a fictional, parasitic pathogen more commonly referred to as GUILT. A positive reaction means the patient is infected, while a negative reaction means the patient has either been cured or is not infected.

In the video game Mass Effect, the turian and quarian alien species have biology based upon right-handed amino acids. Because of this, foods from other species which have life forms based upon left-handed amino acids have no nutritional value and may cause fatal allergic reactions. The process works both ways—species based on left-handed acids, such as humans, cannot consume food from the turian or quarian homeworlds. Left-handed amino acids are portrayed as being more common than right-handed versions. The chirality difference is colloquially referred to as "Levo" and "Dextro" by characters in the game.


The television series Breaking Bad features the "Heisenberg" method of methamphetamine manufacture, which produces a 99% chirally pure product.

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