What are stereoisomers?

The scent of citrus and that of pine resin are stereoisomers – their chemical structure is similar. A tiny structural difference has a profound impact on our sensory experience.

Kristiina Wähälä, Professor of organic chemistry, explains stereoisomerism.

Stereoisomers are compounds which share a molecular formula and chemical bonds, but differ in their spatial structure. The differences in their three-dimensional structures mean that the compounds have different effects on the human body.

One example of stereoisomers is the scent of citrus and that of pine resin. Their different structures mean they bind to different receptors in the nose, resulting in different sensory experiences.

The effect of pharmaceuticals is also due to stereoisomerism.

"Only one stereoisomer of our most common pain relief medication, ibuprofen, can attach to a pain receptor," explains Kristiina Wähälä, Professor of organic chemistry.

Our body processes food into pure stereoisomers which affect our health.

"Lingonberry and rye provide us with lignans that are processed in our intestines into stereoisomers which combat vascular illness as well as cancers, particularly prostate and breast cancer."

The development of effective medication and vaccines is currently slow. If the stereochemistry of different substances could be more easily manipulated, effective medication could be generated quickly in response to unforeseen circumstances – and perhaps we could even find relief from influenza.

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Text: Sanna Agullana
University of Helsinki, digital communications

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