Organic Chemistry Basics

From original discoveries to what make a compound organic learn the bascis of this science.

Organic chemistry is the study of carbon compounds. Compounds consisting of carbon are said to be organic. Although a cell is composed of seventy to ninety percent water, most of the rest of the cell contains carbon-based compounds. DNA, proteins, carbohydrates, and other molecules that distinguish living matter from inanimate material are composed of carbon atoms that are bonded to one another and to atoms of other elements. Hydrogen (H), phosphorus (P), sulfur (S), oxygen (O), and nitrogen (N) are other common ingredients of these compounds. It is carbon that accounts for the endless diversity of biological molecules.

The percentage of major elements of life-P, S, C, H, O and N are quite uniform from the individual to individual. The atoms of organic molecules can be arranged in so many different ways that uniqueness of each organism is ensured. Carbon atoms are the most versatile building blocks of molecules. The versatility allows a limited assortment of atomic building blocks, taken roughly the same portions, to be used to build an inexhaustible variety of organic molecules.

In the nineteenth century chemist had learned to make many simple compounds in the laboratory by combining elements under the right conditions. Around this time Swedish Chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius first made the distinction between organic compounds, those that seemingly could arise only within living compounds and inorganic compounds. The new discipline of organic chemistry was first built on a foundation of vitalism.

Soon chemist began to delve into the foundation of vitalism when they learned to synthesis organic compounds in their laboratories. A German chemist, Friedrich Wohler, in 1828 studied with Berzelius, he attempted to make inorganic salt, ammonium cyanate, by mixing solutions of ammonium and cyanate ions. Wohler was astonished to find instead of the expected product, he had made urea, an organic compound present in the urine of animals. Wohler challenged the vitalists when he wrote "I must tell you that I can prepare urea without requiring a kidney or an animal, either man or dog." Yet, one of the ingredients used for synthesis, the cynate, had been extracted from animals blood, and the vitalists were not swayed by Wohler's discovery. Within a few years, Herman Kolbe, a student of Wohler's, made the organic compound acetic acid from inorganic substances that could themselves be prepared directly from pure elements.

After all of this the foundation of vitalism was shaking. Several decades later it crumbled from laboratory synthesis of increasingly complex organic compounds. Then in 1935, Stanley Miller, a graduate of the University of Chicago, helped place this abiotic synthesis of organic compounds into the context of evolution. Miller used the laboratory simulation of chemical conditions on the primitive Earth to demonstrate that the spontaneous synthesis of organic compounds may have been an early stage of the origin of life.

These pioneers in organic chemistry had shifted the mainstream of biological thought from vitalism to mechanism, the belief that all natural phenomena are governed by physical and chemical laws. Organic chemistry was redefined as the study of carbon compounds, regardless of their origin. The foundation of organic chemistry is not some intangible life force, but the unique chemical versatility of the element carbon.

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