Separating the good from the bad: Two-handed microbes point to new method for isolating harmful forms of chemicals

April 15, 2009

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

Scientists at MIT and Brown University studying how marine bacteria move recently discovered that a sharp variation in water current segregates right-handed bacteria from their left-handed brethren, impelling the microbes in opposite directions.

This finding and the possibility of quickly and cheaply implementing the segregation of two-handed objects in the laboratory could have a big impact on industries like the pharmaceutical, for which the separation of right-handed from left-handed molecules can be crucial to a drug’s safety.

While single-celled bacteria do not have hands, their helical-shaped flagella spiral either clockwise or counter-clockwise, making opposite-turning flagella similar to human hands in that they create mirror images of one another that cannot be superimposed.

This two-handed quality is called chirality, and in a molecule, it can make the difference