Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – The Difference Between (+)/(-) and (R)/(S) in Stereochemical Notation

In a previous Chemistry Lesson of the Day, I introduced the concept of optical rotation (a.k.a. optical activity).  You may also be familiar with the Cahn-Ingold-Prelog priority rules for designating stereogenic centres as either (R) or (S).   There is no direct association between the (+)/(-) designation and the (R)/(S) designation.  In other words, an (R)-enantiomer can be dextrorotary or levorotary – it must be determined on a case-by-case basis.  The same holds true for an (S)-enantiomer.

(R)/(S) can be used to distinguish between enantiomers in one exception: If the stereoisomer has only 1 stereogenic centre, then this designation can also serve as a way to distinguish between 2 enantiomers.

Furthermore, note that the designation of optical rotation applies to a molecule, whereas the R/S designation applies to a particular stereogenic centre within a molecule.  Thus, a molecule with 2 stereogenic centres may have one (R) stereogenic centre and one (S) stereogenic centre.  However, a chiral compound consisting purely of one enantiomer can rotate linearly polarized light in only one direction, and that direction must be determined on a case-by-case basis by a polarimeter.

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