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In chemistry, racemization refers to the converting of an enantiomerically pure mixture (one where only one enantiomer is present) into a mixture where more than one of the enantiomers are present. If the racemization results in a mixture where the enantiomers are present in equal quantities, the resulting sample is described as racemic or a racemate.
Chiral molecules have two forms (at each point of asymmetry), which differ in their optical characteristics: The levorotatory form (the (−)-form) will rotate the plane of polarization of a beam of light to the left, whereas the dextrorotatory form (the (+)-form) will rotate the plane of polarization of a beam of light to the right. The two forms, which are non-superimposable when rotated in 3-dimensional space, are said to be enantiomers.
Racemization occurs when one pure form of an enantiomer is converted into equal proportion of both enantiomers, forming a racemate. When there are both equal numbers of dextrorotating and levorotating molecules, the net optical rotation of a racemate is zero.
Racemate may have different physical properties from either of the pure enantiomers because of the differential intermolecular interactions. The change from a pure enantiomer to a racemate can change its density, melting point, solubility, heat of fusion, refractive index, and its various spectra. Crystalization of a racemate can result in separate (+) and (−) forms, or a single racemic compound.
In general, only one form of a chiral molecule will participate in biochemical reactions while the other simply does not participate or can cause side-effects. Of note, the L form of amino acids and the D form of sugars (primarily glucose) are usually the biologically reactive form. Additionally, many psychotropic drugs show differing activity or efficacy between isomers, e.g. amphetamine is often dispensed as racemic salts while the more active dextroamphetamine is reserved for refractory cases or more severe indications; another example is methadone, of which one isomer has activity as an opioid agonist and the other as an NMDA antagonist.
Racemization of pharmaceutical drugs, however, can occur in vivo. An example is thalidomide, its (R) enantiomer is effective against morning sickness, while the (S) enantiomer is teratogenic, causing birth defects. If only one enantiomer is administered to a human subject, both forms may be found later in the blood serum. The drug is therefore not considered safe for use by women of child-bearing age, and while it has other uses, its use is tightly controlled.
On a trivial level, racemization can be achieved by simply mixing equal quantities of two pure enantiomers. Racemization can also occur in a chemical interconversion. For example, when (R)-3-phenyl-2-butanone is dissolved in aqueous ethanol that contains NaOH or HCl, a racemate is formed. The racemization occurs by way of an intermediate enol form in which the former stereocenter becomes planar and hence achiral. An incoming group can approach from either side of the plane, so there is an equal probability that protonation back to the chiral ketone will produce either an R or an S form, resulting in a racemate.
The rate of racemization (from L-forms to a mixture of L-forms and D-forms) has been used as a way of dating biological samples in tissues with slow rates of turnover, forensic samples, and fossils in geological deposits. This technique is known as amino acid dating.