September 22, 2023
Chirality and Helicity

Difference Between Chirality and Helicity

Have you ever taken time to contemplate the incredible world of molecules and what role they play in life’s diversity? Have you considered what you take for granted when living an ordinary day, such as breathing air? Chirality and helicity are two fundamental concepts that play a crucial role in shaping the characteristics of various compounds. Understanding the difference between chirality and helicity is essential for comprehending the intricate nature of molecular structures and their significance in numerous scientific disciplines. We will delve into the depths of chirality and helicity, exploring their definitions, properties, and applications in different fields.

Definition of Chirality and Helicity

Chirality: Chirality refers to a property of asymmetry exhibited by certain objects or molecules. An object is considered chiral if it cannot be superimposed onto its mirror image. In other words, a chiral object lacks internal symmetry elements that would allow it to align perfectly with its mirror image. Chirality is an Integral Concept to Biology, Chemistry, and Physics; Its Significance Can Be Found in Fields as Diverse as Biochemistry, Pharmacology, and Materials Science.

Helicity: Helicity refers to the property of having a helical or spiral structure. Helixes are three-dimensional spirals that wind around an axis central, similar to an incline staircase. Helicity can be defined by direction alone irrespective of whether they’re left- or right-handed helix; clockwise-rotating spirals travel in both cases while right-handed ones reverse it by counterclockwise spiraling along their respective axes. Helical structures are commonly found in nature, such as in DNA, protein secondary structures (e.g., alpha helix), and various macroscopic objects like springs and screws.

Understanding That Helicity and Chirality Are Two Closely-Related Concepts is Crucial to Fully Appreciate How Different They Are From One Another. Chirality specifically refers to asymmetry, while helicity refers to the presence of a helical structure. Chiral structures can exhibit helicity, but not all helical structures are necessarily chiral. The distinction between chirality and helicity is significant in different scientific disciplines, and understanding their differences is crucial for various applications and research fields.

Importance of understanding chirality and helicity in various fields

Understanding chirality and helicity is of great importance in several fields due to their significant impact on various phenomena and applications.

Here are some key areas where understanding chirality and helicity plays a crucial role:

1. Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences:
a. Chirality: Chiral molecules exhibit different chemical and biological properties based on their spatial arrangement. Understanding chirality is essential in drug development and pharmaceutical sciences as enantiomers (mirror-image isomers) of chiral drugs can have different pharmacological effects and levels of toxicity. Separation and analysis of chiral compounds, as well as the development of chiral catalysts for asymmetric synthesis, rely on the knowledge of chirality.

b. Helicity: Helical molecular structures can impact the properties of chemical compounds, such as stability, reactivity, and interactions with other molecules. The helical structure of DNA is crucial for its replication and interaction with proteins.

2. Biology and Biochemistry:
a. Chirality: Chiral Molecules Comprise Many Biomolecules Such as Sugars, Amino Acids, and Nucleotides Found in Nature. The chirality of these molecules influences their biological functions, including protein folding, enzyme specificity, and molecular recognition. Chirality is also relevant in the study of biomolecular asymmetry in living organisms.

b. Helicity: Helical structures play a vital role in biological systems. DNA’s double helix structure is central to its storage and transmission of genetic information; similarly, secondary protein structures like beta sheets and alpha helices play an integral part in folding protein structures and maintaining their functionality.

3. Physics and Materials Science:
a. Chirality: Chiral materials exhibit unique physical properties, such as optical activity and circular dichroism, where the interaction of light with chiral molecules or structures leads to differential absorption or polarization. Chiral nanostructures may prove valuable in optics, electronic devices, and photonics applications.

b. Helicity: Helical structures can possess interesting physical properties, such as chirality-induced spin selectivity and shape memory effects in materials like shape memory alloys. Understanding helicity is crucial for designing and engineering materials with desired properties.

4. Nanotechnology and Engineering: Chirality and helicity are significant considerations in nanoscale engineering and design. Nanomaterials with controlled chirality or helicity are explored for applications in sensors, catalysis, drug delivery, and self-assembled nanodevices.

5. Cosmology and Astrophysics: Helical structures have been observed in astronomical phenomena such as spiral galaxies and cosmic magnetic fields. Studying the helicity of these structures helps in understanding the formation and evolution of celestial objects.

Understanding chirality and helicity is essential in fields ranging from chemistry, biology, and pharmaceutical sciences to physics, materials science, and engineering. Their impact on molecular interactions, material properties, and biological functions underscores their significance in various scientific disciplines and technological advancements.

What is Chirality?

Chirality refers to a property of objects or molecules that exhibit a lack of symmetry or asymmetry. A chiral object cannot be superimposed onto its mirror image. This property arises when an object or molecule possesses a specific spatial arrangement that cannot be perfectly aligned with its mirror reflection.

To understand chirality, imagine holding your hands out in front of you with palms facing upwards. Put your right hand near mirrors and look upward; its reflection will appear to be your left hand! The key characteristic of chirality is that the right hand and its mirror image (the left hand) are not superimposable—they cannot be made to perfectly match up. Therefore, hands are considered chiral objects.

Chirality is not limited to hands; it can be observed in various natural and synthetic structures. Chirality is frequently encountered in molecules that contain a central carbon atom bonded to four different groups, known as a chiral center. These molecules are called chiral molecules or stereoisomers. Examples of chiral molecules include amino acids, sugars, and many pharmaceutical drugs.

The concept of chirality has far-reaching implications in various fields. Chirality plays an essential role in biomolecule structures and functions such as DNA and proteins. The different spatial arrangements of enantiomers (mirror-image isomers) of chiral drugs can lead to other biological effects and levels of toxicity. Understanding chirality is also essential in the study of crystallography, materials science, and the development of chiral catalysts for chemical synthesis.

Chirality (chemistry) - Wikipedia

Chirality is a fundamental concept that describes the asymmetry and lack of mirror symmetry in objects or molecules. It Has Great Relevance Across Multiple Scientific Fields and Can Be Applied Directly in Real-World Situations Across Fields Like Chemistry, Biology, Materials Science, and Pharmacology.

Chiral molecules and objects

Chiral molecules and objects are those that possess chirality, meaning they exhibit asymmetry and cannot be superimposed onto their mirror images.

Here are examples of chiral molecules and objects:

Chiral Molecules:
1. Amino Acids: Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are chiral molecules. Except for glycine, all other naturally occurring amino acids are chiral, with the presence of a central carbon atom bonded to four different groups.

2. Sugars: Many sugars, such as glucose and fructose, are chiral molecules. They have multiple chiral centers, resulting in multiple possible stereoisomers, including D and L enantiomers.

3. Thalidomide: Thalidomide is a notorious example of a chiral drug. While one enantiomer of thalidomide is a sedative and was historically prescribed as a morning sickness treatment, the other enantiomer caused severe birth defects. This case highlighted the importance of chirality in pharmaceuticals.

4. Menthol: Menthol is a chiral compound found in mint plants. Due to its cooling and soothing qualities, benzocaine is widely utilized in chewing gum, toothpaste, and cough drops.

Chiral Objects:
1. Seashells: Many seashells exhibit chirality in their spiral patterns. The direction of the spiral can be either right-handed or left-handed, with different species displaying distinct chirality.

2. Hands: As mentioned earlier, human hands are chiral objects. The arrangement of fingers, thumb, and palm is not superimposable onto its mirror image.

3. Screw Threads: The threads on a screw can have either right-handed or left-handed chirality, depending on the direction in which they wind around the screw.

4. Helical Springs: Springs, such as those found in mechanical devices or mattresses, can have a helical shape with either right-handed or left-handed winding.

Chirality may occur naturally or artificially in many different structures such as crystals, biological molecules, and polymers; as well as more complex organic substances. The presence of chirality in these molecules and objects often influences their physical, chemical, and biological properties, making the study of chirality essential in several scientific disciplines.

Symmetry and asymmetry in chirality

Symmetry and asymmetry play crucial roles in understanding chirality.

Let’s delve into their relationship in the context of chirality:

Symmetry: Symmetry refers to a property of objects or systems that exhibit a balance or correspondence in their arrangement, shape, or properties. Symmetric objects possess certain elements or operations that preserve their overall appearance when applied. Mirror, rotational, and translational symmetry can all be considered types of symmetry.

Asymmetry: Asymmetry refers to an absence of harmony. An object or system is considered asymmetric if it does not possess any symmetry elements or operations that preserve its appearance when applied. Asymmetric objects are characterized by an irregular or unbalanced arrangement.

Chirality and Asymmetry: Chirality is one form of asymmetry associated with handiness or absence in mirror symmetry. Chiral objects or molecules cannot be superimposed onto their mirror images, indicating a fundamental lack of symmetry.

The absence of mirror symmetry is a defining characteristic. Consider your hands: your right hand cannot be superimposed perfectly onto its mirror image, the left hand. This lack of superimposability demonstrates chirality and the presence of asymmetry.

Chiral molecules also exhibit this lack of mirror symmetry. A chiral molecule contains a chiral center, often a carbon atom, that is bonded to four different groups. Due to this asymmetry, the molecule’s mirror image, called its enantiomer, is distinct and non-superimposable.

Remembering the important fact that chirality is not determined by the dimensions or orientation of molecules or objects is critical in understanding its influence on the properties and behaviors of substances at a molecular or microscopic scale. Chirality could potentially alter properties and behaviors.

Understanding the relationship between symmetry and asymmetry is crucial for distinguishing chiral entities from symmetric or achiral ones. Chirality’s presence and the absence of mirror symmetry have significant implications in chemistry, biology, materials science, and other disciplines, influencing properties, interactions, and functions in these systems.

What is Helicity?

Helicity refers to the property of having a helical or spiral structure. A helix is a three-dimensional curve that wraps around a central axis, resembling a spiral staircase or a coiled spring. Helicity describes the direction of the spiral or the handedness of the helix, whether it is right-handed or left-handed.

The spiral moves in a clockwise direction as it progresses along the axis. Imagine a right-handed screw turning into a material or a staircase that winds up in a clockwise direction. Left-handed helixes turn counterclockwise as they travel along their respective axes. It is akin to a left-handed screw or a winding staircase that goes in a counterclockwise direction.

Helical structures can be observed in various natural and artificial contexts. Here are a few examples:

1. DNA: The double helix structure of DNA is a famous example of helicity in nature. The DNA molecule consists of two intertwined strands that form a right-handed helical structure.

2. Protein Secondary Structures: Secondary structures like the alpha helix and the 3_10 helix exhibit helical properties. The alpha helix, for instance, is a right-handed helix where the protein backbone coils around a central axis.

3. Springs and Coiled Cables: Helical springs, such as those used in mechanical devices or mattresses, have a helical shape. These May Be Left- or Right-Handed Depending on Which Direction the Spring Winds Are Blowing.

4. Screw Threads: The threads on a screw are helical structures. Right-handed screws feature right-handed helical threads while left-handed ones sport left-hand threads for their helicals.

Helicity has implications in various scientific fields and applications:

• Physics: Helicity plays a role in the study of wave propagation, such as the helicity of electromagnetic waves or the helical motion of charged particles in magnetic fields.

• Materials Science: Helical structures in materials, such as shape memory alloys, can exhibit unique properties like shape memory effects, where the material can recover its original shape after deformation.

• Optics: Helical structures can induce circular polarization in light, leading to phenomena like circular dichroism and optical activity.

Inverse Evolution of Helicity from the Molecular to the Macroscopic Level Based on N-Terminal Aromatic Amino Acids | ACS Nano

Understanding helicity’s significance is integral in fields like molecular biology and materials science where structures that exhibit helical properties alter characteristics such as behavior or interaction between systems.

Helical structures in nature

Helical structures can be seen throughout nature at many scales from microscopic to molecular levels, providing us with many examples.

Here are just a few helix structures found in nature:

1. DNA: The double DNA helix is perhaps one of the best-known and iconic structures found in nature. The two DNA strands are twisted around each other in a right-handed helical fashion, forming the iconic spiral staircase shape.

2. Proteins: Protein structures can exhibit helical elements. The alpha helix is a common secondary structure in proteins, where the protein backbone forms a right-handed helical coil. It plays a crucial role in protein folding and stability.

3. Plants: Many plants exhibit helical growth patterns in their stems, tendrils, and leaves. Examples include the helical arrangement of leaves on a stem of a plant or the helical coiling of tendrils around supporting structures.

4. Shells: Various seashells and mollusk shells display helical patterns. Examples include the logarithmic spiral of a nautilus shell or the helical growth patterns seen in snail shells.

5. Spiral Galaxies: Spiral galaxies like the Milky Way display a characteristic spiral structure. These galaxies have rotating arms that wrap around a central bulge, creating a grand-scale helical structure.

6. Weather Phenomena: Weather patterns such as tornadoes and hurricanes often exhibit a swirling, helical structure. These atmospheric phenomena form due to the rotation of air masses and the Coriolis effect.

7. Microorganisms: Some microorganisms, such as bacteria and certain algae, possess helical or spiral shapes. Helicobacter Pylori is characterized by its spiral shape which allows it to move with great efficiency like corkscrewing action.

8. Spiral Horns: The horns of certain animals, such as antelopes and some sheep, grow in a spiral or helical shape. These structures provide support, and defense, and can be unique to each individual.

These examples demonstrate the prevalence of helical structures in nature, spanning from biological systems to astronomical phenomena. Helical arrangements often provide functional advantages, such as efficient packing, mechanical stability, or directional movement. Understanding helical structures within nature is integral for many scientific fields such as Physics, Biology, Astronomy, and materials science.

Different types of helicity

There are different types of helicity based on the direction of the spiral. Helicity comes in both left- and right-handed varieties.

1. Right-Handed Helicity: The spiral moves in a clockwise direction as it progresses along the axis. From its base or origin point to the right and bottom points, a right-handed helix appears to move clockwise. This type of helicity is commonly represented by a right-handed screw.

2. Left-Handed Helicity: A left-handed helix moves in a counterclockwise direction as it progresses along the axis. Viewed from either of the upper or lower hemispheres from either side, if viewed from either the left-handed helix appears to rotate clockwise. This type of helicity is often represented by a left-handed screw.

Keep in Mind That Any Variation Between Left- and Right-Handed Helicity Depends Upon an Observer’s Point of View, Which May Change Depending on His/her Frame of Reference. Right, and left-handedness is subjective concepts that depend on which conventions have been established for the identification of these terms.

These two types of helicity can be observed in various natural and artificial structures, such as DNA, protein secondary structures, shells, and springs. Acknowledging the relationship between helicity and structure is vital in understanding its functional, and geometric characteristics as well as interaction with the other components of a system.

Difference between Chirality and Helicity

Chirality and helicity are related concepts but have distinct meanings and applications.

Here are the key differences between chirality and helicity:

• Chirality: Chirality refers to a property of objects or molecules that exhibit a lack of symmetry or asymmetry. A chiral object or molecule cannot be superimposed onto its mirror image.

• Helicity: Helicity refers to the property of having a helical or spiral structure. Direction is key when discussing spirals. Left or right-handedness should also be factored into its construction and use.

Nature of Property:
• Chirality: Chirality is a property that arises from the lack of mirror symmetry in an object or molecule. It is associated with the spatial arrangement of constituent parts or atoms.

• Helicity: Helicity is a property that describes the geometric characteristic of a structure, specifically the presence of a spiral or helical shape. It is related to the overall three-dimensional arrangement of the object or structure.

• Chirality: Chirality can be used in multiple fields such as chemistry, the pharmaceutical industry, biology, and materials science. It plays a crucial role in determining the properties, behaviors, and interactions of chiral molecules, including biological functions, drug effects, and catalytic reactions.

• Helicity: Helicity finds applications in various scientific disciplines, including physics, materials science, and astrophysics. It is relevant for studying the properties and behaviors of helical structures, such as DNA, protein secondary structures, and spiral galaxies.

Chirality: Chirality is typically represented using enantiomers, which are mirror-image isomers of chiral molecules. Enantiomers are non-superimposable and have distinct properties.

Helicity: Helicity is represented by the direction of the spiral or the handedness of the helix, often described as right-handed or left-handed. It is based on the observable geometric characteristics of the structure.


Chirality and helicity are related but distinct concepts. Chirality refers to the lack of mirror symmetry in objects or molecules, while helicity describes the presence of a helical or spiral structure. Chirality is associated with the asymmetry of an object or molecule, while helicity pertains to the geometric arrangement of the structure. Understanding both concepts is important in various scientific fields, but their specific applications and implications differ.

Comparison Chart

Sure! Here’s a comparison chart highlighting the key differences between chirality and helicity:
Chirality Helicity
Definition Lack of symmetry or asymmetry in objects or molecules Property of having a helical or spiral structure
Nature Associated with spatial arrangement Related to the overall three-dimensional shape
Application Chemistry, biology, pharmaceuticals, materials science Physics, materials science, astrophysics
Representation Enantiomers (mirror-image isomers) The direction of spiral or handedness (right-handed/left-handed)
Observable Property Lack of superimposability of mirror image Spiral or helical shape

Please note that while the chart summarizes the key differences between chirality and helicity, it’s important to remember that these concepts are interrelated and often studied together in various scientific disciplines.


Chirality and helicity are fascinating molecular properties that contribute to the diversity and complexity of chemical systems. Chiral molecules display a lack of symmetry and often find applications in pharmaceuticals and materials science. On the other hand, helicity imparts a spiral shape to objects, leading to unique mechanical, optical, and electronic properties. Understanding the difference between chirality and helicity is vital for scientists and researchers across various disciplines. By unraveling these ideas, we can gain a greater comprehension of our molecular world.