Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Conformational Isomers (or Conformers)

Conformational isomerism is a special type of stereoisomerism that arises from the rotation of a single bond.  Specifically, 2 molecules are conformational isomers (or conformers) if they can be interconverted exclusively by the rotation of a single bond.  This type of isomerism differs from configurational stereoisomerism, whose isomers can only be interconverted by breaking certain bonds and reattaching* them to produce different 3-dimensional orientations.  Examples of configurational isomers include enantiomers, diastereomers, cis/trans isomers and meso isomers.

Different conformers are notable for having different stabilities, depending on the electrostatic interactions between the substituents along the single bond of interest.  I will talk about these differences in greater depth in future Chemistry Lessons of the Day.

*Such reattachment of the bonds must not result in different connectivities (or sequence of bonds); otherwise, that would result in structural isomers.

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Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Stereoisomers

Two molecules are stereoisomers if they

  • have the same molecular formula
  • have the same sequence of bonds between each molecule’s constituent atoms
  • have different 3-dimensional (spatial or geometric) orientations of the constituent atoms

Examples of stereoisomers include

It is important to emphasize that stereoisomers are defined for 2 or more molecules.  Consider 3 isomers, A, B and C.

  • A and B may be stereoisomers.
  • A and C may not be stereoisomers.  They may be structural isomers, which have the same atoms but different sequences of bonds.

Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Meso Isomers

A molecule is a meso isomer if it

Meso isomers have an internal plane of symmetry, which arises from 2 identically substituted but oppositely oriented stereogenic centres.  (By “oppositely oriented”, I mean the stereochemical orientation as defined by the Cahn-Ingold-Prelog priority system.  For example, in a meso isomer with 2 tetrahedral stereogenic centres, one stereogenic centre needs to be “R”, and the other stereogenic centre needs to be “S”. )  This symmetry results in the superimposability of a meso isomer’s mirror image.

By definition, a meso isomer and an enantiomer from the same stereoisomer are a pair of diastereomers.

Having at least 2 stereogenic centres is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a molecule to have meso isomers.  Recall that a molecule with n tetrahedral stereogenic centres has at most 2^n stereoisomers; such a molecule would have less than 2^n stereoisomers if it has meso isomers.

Meso isomers are also called meso compounds.

Here is an example of a meso isomer; notice the internal plane of symmetry – the horizontal line that divides the 2 stereogenic carbons:

(2R,3S)-tartaric acid

(2R,3S)-tartaric acid

Image courtesy of Project Osprey from Wikimedia (with a slight modification).

Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Stereogenic Centre

A stereogenic centre (often called a stereocentre) is an atom that satisfies 2 conditions:

  1. it is bonded to at least 3 substituents.
  2. interchanging any 2 of the substituents would result in a stereoisomer.

If a molecule has only 1 stereogenic centre, then it definitely has a non-superimposable mirror image (i.e. this molecule is chiral and is an enantiomer).  However, depending on its stereochemistry, it is possible for a molecule with 2 or more stereogenic centres to be achiral; such molecules are called meso isomers (or meso compounds), and I will discuss them in a later lesson.

In organic chemistry, the stereogenic centre is usually a carbon atom that is attached to 4 substituents in a tetrahedral geometry.  In inorganic chemistry, the stereogenic centre is usually the metal centre of a coordination complex.

In organic chemistry, stereogenic centres with substituents in a tetrahedral geometry are common.  Inorganic coordination complexes can also have a tetrahedral geometry.  A stereoisomer with n tetrahedral stereogenic centres can have at most 2^n stereoisomers.  The “at most” caveat is important; as mentioned above, it is possible for a molecule with 2 or more stereogenic centres to have a spatial arrangement that results in having a superimposable mirror image; such isomers are meso isomers.   I will discuss meso isomers in more detail in a later lesson.