Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Original what?!?

There's excitement in the prebiotic chemistry world over a paper that bridges what sounds like some key gaps in the primordial "minerals to RNA to DNA to angry fighting monkey man" chain. But what really got me thinking quizzically was this passage in the New York Times article covering it:
"A serious puzzle about the nature of life is that most of its molecules are right-handed or left-handed, whereas in nature mixtures of both forms exist. Dr. Joyce said he had hoped an explanation for the one-handedness of biological molecules would emerge from prebiotic chemistry, but Dr. Sutherland’s reactions do not supply any such explanation. One is certainly required because of what is known to chemists as "original syn," referring to a chemical operation that can affect a molecule’s handedness."
Original what? I've never heard that before. There doesn't seem to be anything Googleable* about it. Besides, it doesn't even make sense from a terminology standpoint. "Syn" is a relative definition of chirality, not an absolute one.

Readers, what say you? Was the NYT reporter making this up out of whole cloth? I'll bet it was some scamp of a professor foisting his bad puns as common usage.

*My Google-fu is competent (but not great), so I admit that there could be something out there that I missed. But "original syn" -album plus chirality or homochirality or any other prebiotic Donna Blackmond awesomeness buzzwords only returns the NYT article...

UPDATE: Chemblogiverse eminence grise Paul Bracher graciously responds to an e-mail:

I’ve worked on origin-of-life chemistry for 4+ years, gone to scores of talks on the subject (one by Joyce), and read hundreds of articles (many by Joyce). I, too, can’t remember ever hearing of “original syn” before. The term that most people use is “prebiotic synthesis” or “prebiotically-feasible/plausible synthesis”. I don’t even think people refer to it as “prebiotic syn”.
And later, Paul updates:

Actually, reading that over again, I assumed that the “syn” referred to making the molecule (synthesis) rather than what the article says (a reference to the stereochemistry—there, as you point out, “syn” makes no sense). Obviously, someone wanted to make a pun (hard to tell whether it was the reporter or a scientist) and crammed it in.
So, to be thorough, there are two possibly pertinent terms. The first, is “prebiotic synthesis”, which is the synthesis of biologically important molecules using conditions that were plausible on the prebiotic Earth. The second term is “homochirality”. What these guys are calling the search for the “original syn” is more properly the search for the “origin of homochirality.”
Anyway, can’t we just agree not to make bad puns unless they are also precise?

I agree, especially on the puns. Thanks, Paul!

UPDATE 2: I've put an e-mail into Nicholas Wade -- let's see if anything comes of it. In addition, there is an accompanying article with a stunning (for a newspaper, anyway) scheme of the reactions they tried from the Nature article. Always nice to see structures (and not the fake pseudo-structures that graphic artists are strangely in love with.)

I also want to note that in the Nature article and the commentary in the same issue, I don't think the term is used.

P.S. Maybe it was "original sin" as in sinistral? Who knows...

UPDATE 3: Nicholas Wade graciously responds to CJ's e-mail question: "who suggested to you that "original syn" is a term of art? No chemists I know have heard of this term.":

 "Original syn" is of course a pun, rather than a term of art, and probably better known to chemists who work on the origin of life than to chemists at large.

        Nicholas Wade   


  1. An excellent question- the term never came up while I was looking into homochirality.

    If I hear anything about it, I'll let you know.

  2. That reference to "original syn" caught my attention, too. I also googled and found your blog! I then tried searching Google for "'original syn'" chemistry and only came up with false leads.

  3. I think the term original syn is quite clever.

  4. As Samuel Johnson said, the pun is the lowest form of humor.

  5. Samuel Jackson has obviously not been on the internet.

  6. Mr. Bracher's explanation of the pun "original syn" corresponds to what I interpreted it as when I initially read the NYT article, that it referred to the still speculated origins of chemical chirality. Good job there.

    However, I have to say I don't agree with your initial evidence of something not existing because Google can't find it. A lack in "Google" given results should have been a number one indicator that the term wasn't an official one. Reporters trying to sneak in bad puns? This seems a little too conspiratorial and unmotivated to merit credence, to me. Though the term wasn't in a direct quote from Dr. Sutherland, the article shortly after mentions Sutherland's comments on the exact aforementioned subject. So my guess there is that he used the pun, or understood it when it was brought up to him.

    It was a good pun, in my opinion.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20