Bifunctional Lewis Acid-Nucleophile-Based Asymmetric Catalysis:  Mechanistic Evidence for Imine Activation Working in Tandem with Chiral Enolate Formation in the Synthesis of β-Lactams

We report a mechanistically based study of bifunctional catalyst systems in which chiral nucleophiles work in conjunction with Lewis acids to produce β-lactams in high chemical yield, diastereoselectivity, and enantioselectivity. Chiral cinchona alkaloid derivatives work best when paired with Lewis acids based on Al(III), Zn(II), Sc(III), and, most notably, In(III). Homogeneous bifunctional catalysts, in which the catalyst contains both Lewis acidic and Lewis basic sites, were also studied in detail. Mechanistic evidence allows us to conclude that the chiral nucleophiles form zwitterionic enolates that react with metal-coordinated imines. Alternative scenarios, which postulated metal-bound enolates, were disfavored on the basis of our observations.