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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Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – DO NOT USE THE PREFIXES (d-) and (l-) TO CLASSIFY ENANTIOMERS

In a recent Chemistry Lesson of the Day, I introduced the concept of optical rotation, and I mentioned the use of (+) and (-) to denote dextrorotary and levorotary compounds, respectively.

Some people use d- and l- instead of (+) and (-), respectively.  I strongly discourage this, because there is an old system of classifying stereogenic centres that uses the prefixes D- and L-, and the obvious similarity between the prefixes of the 2 systems causes much confusion.

This old system classifies stereogenic centres based on the similarities of their configurations to the 2 enantiomers of glyceraldehyde.  It is confusing, non-intuitive, and outdated, so I will not discuss its rationale or details on my blog.  (If you are interested, here is a good explanation from the University of Maine’s chemistry department.)

Also, note that D- and L- classify stereogenic centres, whereas d- and l- classify enantiomers – this just adds more confusion.

In short,

  • DO NOT use d- and l- to classify enantiomers; use (+) and (-) instead.
  • DO NOT use D- and L- to classify stereogenic centres; use the Cahn-Ingold-Prelog priority rules (R/S) instead.

Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Optical Rotation (a.k.a. Optical Activity)

A substance consisting of a chiral compound can rotate linearly polarized light – this property is known as optical rotation (more commonly called optical activity).  The direction in which the light is rotated is one way to distinguish between a pair of enantiomers, as they rotate linearly polarized light in opposite directions.

Imagine if you are an enantiomer, and linearly polarized light approaches you.

  • If the light is rotated clockwise from your perspective, then you are a dextrorotary enantiomer.
  • Otherwise, if the light is rotated counterclockwise from your perspective, then you are a levorotary enantiomer.

In a previous Chemistry Lesson of the Day, I introduced the concept of diastereomers, and I used threose as an example.  Let’s use threose to illustrate some notation about optical activity.

D-threose.svg 2

(-)-Threose

  • Levorotary compounds are denoted by the prefix (-), followed by a hyphen, then followed by the name of the compound.  The above molecule is (-)-threose.
  • Dextrorotary compounds are denoted by the prefix (+), followed by a hyphen, then followed by the name of the compound.  The enantiomer of (-)-threose is (+)-threose.

A compound’s optical rotation is determined by a polarimeter.

I strongly discourage the use of the prefixes (d)- and (l-) to distinguish between enantiomers.  Use (+) and (-) instead.

Beware of the difference between designating enantiomers as (+) or (-) and designating stereogenic centres as either (R) or (S).

It is important to note that optical rotation is usually referred to as a bulk property.

Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Cis/Trans Isomers Are Diastereomers

Recall that the definition of diastereomers is simply 2 molecules that are NOT enantiomers.  Diastereomers often have at least 2 stereogenic centres, and my previous lesson showed an example of how such diastereomers can arise.

However, while an enantiomer must have at least 1 stereogenic centre, there is nothing in the definition of a diastereomer that requires it to have any stereogenic centres.  In fact, a diastereomer does not have to be chiral.  A pair of cis/trans isomers are also diastereomers.  Recall the example of trans-1,2-dibromoethylene and cis-1,2-dibromoethylene:

dibromoethylene

 

Image courtesy of Roland1952 on Wikimedia.

These 2 molecules are stereoisomers – they have the same atoms and sequence/connectivity of bonds, but they differ in their spatial orientations.  They are NOT mirror images of each other, let alone non-superimposable mirror images.  Thus, by definition, they are diastereomers, even though they are not chiral.

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 – Diastereomers

I previously introduced the concept of chirality and how it is a property of any molecule with only 1 stereogenic centre.  (A molecule with n stereogenic centres may or may not be chiral, depending on its stereochemistry.)  I also defined 2 stereoisomers as enantiomers if they are non-superimposable mirror images of each other.  (Recall that chirality in inorganic chemistry can arise in 2 different ways.)

It is possible for 2 stereoisomers to NOT be enantiomers; in fact, such stereoisomers are called diastereomers.  Yes, I recognize that defining something as the negation of something else is unusual.  If you have learned set theory or probability (as I did in my mathematical statistics classes) then consider the set of all pairs of the stereoisomers of one compound – this is the sample space.  The enantiomers form a set within this sample space, and the diastereomers are the complement of the enantiomers.

It is important to note that, while diastereomers are not mirror images of each other, they are still non-superimposable.  Diastereomers often (but not always) arise from stereoisomers with 2 or more stereogenic centres; here is an example of how they can arise.  (A pair of cis/trans-isomers are also diastereomers, despite not having any stereogenic centres.)

1) Consider a stereoisomer with 2 tetrahedral stereogenic centres and no meso isomers*.  This isomer has 2^{n = 2} stereoisomers, where n = 2 denotes the number of stereogenic centres.

2) Find one pair of enantiomers based on one of the stereogenic centres.

3) Find the other pair enantiomers based on the other stereogenic centre.

4) Take any one molecule from Step #2 and any one molecule from Step #3.  These cannot be mirror images of each other.  (One molecule cannot have 2 different mirror images of itself.)  These 2 molecules are diastereomers.

Think back to my above description of enantiomers as a proper subset within the sample space of the pairs of one set of stereoisomers.  You can now see why I emphasized that the sample space consists of pairs, since multiple different pairs of stereoisomers can form enantiomers.  In my example above, Steps #2 and #3 produced 2 subsets of enantiomers.  It should be clear by now that enantiomers and diastereomers are defined as pairs.  To further illustrate this point,

a) call the 2 molecules in Step#2 A and B.

b) call the 2 molecules in Step #3 C and D.

A and B are enantiomers.  A and C are diastereomers.  Thus, it is entirely possible for one molecule to be an enantiomer with a second molecule and a diastereomer with a third molecule.

Here is an example of 2 diastereomers.  Notice that they have the same chemical formula but different 3-dimensional orientations – i.e. they are stereoisomers.  These stereoisomers are not mirror images of each other, but they are non-superimposable – i.e. they are diastereomers.

D-threose.svg 2

(-)-Threose

D-erythrose 2.svg

(-)-Erythrose

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images courtesy of Popnose, DMacks and Edgar181 on Wikimedia.  For brevity, I direct you to the Wikipedia entry for diastereomers showing these 4 images in one panel.

In a later Chemistry Lesson of the Day on optical rotation (a.k.a. optical activity), I will explain what the (-) symbol means in the names of those 2 diastereomers.

*I will discuss meso isomers in a separate lesson.

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.