Carbon and Organic Molecules

By the end of this lesson and the next few, you should be able to:

  • Explain why carbon is important for life
  • Describe the role of functional groups in biological molecules

Carbon

Cells consist of many complex molecules which we call macromolecules. These include proteins, nucleic acids (RNA and DNA), carbohydrates, and lipids. The macromolecules are a subset of organic molecules (any carbon-containing liquid, solid, or gas) that are especially important for life. Basically, the fundamental component for all of these macromolecules is carbon.

Carbon-atom

Image Attribution: “Carbon atom,” by Alejandro Porto via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The carbon atom has unique properties that allow it to form covalent bonds to as many as four different atoms. Therefore, this makes this versatile element ideal to serve as the basic structural component, or “backbone,” of the macromolecules.

Individual carbon atoms have an incomplete outermost electron shell. With an atomic number of 6 (six electrons and six protons), the first two electrons fill the inner shell, leaving four in the second shell. Therefore, carbon atoms can form up to four covalent bonds with other atoms to satisfy the octet rule.

The methane molecule provides an example. It has the chemical formula CH4. Each of its four hydrogen atoms forms a single covalent bond with the carbon atom by sharing a pair of electrons. This results in a filled outermost shell.

Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbons are organic molecules consisting entirely of carbon and hydrogen, such as methane (CH4) described above. As a matter of fact, we often use hydrocarbons in our daily lives as fuels—like the propane in a gas grill or the butane in a lighter. The many covalent bonds between the atoms in hydrocarbons store a great amount of energy, which is released when these molecules are burned (oxidized).

Methane, an excellent fuel, is the simplest hydrocarbon molecule, with a central carbon atom bonded to four different hydrogen atoms, as you can see in the image below. The geometry of the methane molecule, where the atoms reside in three dimensions, depends on the shape of its electron orbitals. The carbons and the four hydrogen atoms form a shape known as a tetrahedron, with four triangular faces. For this reason, we describe methane as having tetrahedral geometry.

methane-tetahedral-geometry

Methane has a tetrahedral geometry, with each of the four hydrogen atoms spaced 109.5° apart. Image Attribution: OpenStax Biology

As the backbone of the large molecules of living things, hydrocarbons may exist as linear carbon chains, carbon rings, or combinations of both. Furthermore, individual carbon-to-carbon bonds may be single, double, or triple covalent bonds. In fact, each type of bond affects the geometry of the molecule in a specific way. This three-dimensional shape or conformation of the large molecules of life (macromolecules) is critical to how they function.

Hydrocarbon Chains

Hydrocarbon chains form as a result of successive bonds between carbon atoms and may be branched or unbranched. Furthermore, the overall geometry of the molecule is altered by the different geometries of single, double, and triple covalent bonds, illustrated in the image below.

hydrocarbon-chains

When carbon forms single bonds with other atoms, the shape is tetrahedral. When two carbon atoms form a double bond, the shape is planar, or flat. Single bonds, like those found in ethane, are able to rotate. Double bonds, like those found in ethene cannot rotate, so the atoms on either side are locked in place. Image Attribution: OpenStax Biology

The hydrocarbons ethane, ethene, and ethyne serve as examples of how different carbon-to-carbon bonds affect the geometry of the molecule. The names of all three molecules start with the prefix “eth-,” which is the prefix for two carbon molecules. The suffixes “-ane,” “-ene,” and “-yne” refer to the presence of single, double, or triple carbon-carbon bonds, respectively.

Thus, propane, propene, and propyne follow the same pattern with three carbon molecules, butane, butane, and butyne for four carbon molecules, and so on. Double and triple bonds change the geometry of the molecule. Single bonds allow rotation along the axis of the bond, whereas double bonds lead to a planar configuration and triple bonds to a linear one. These geometries have a significant impact on the shape a particular molecule can assume.

Hydrocarbon Rings

So far, the hydrocarbons we have discussed have been aliphatic hydrocarbons. These hydrocarbons consist of linear chains of carbon atoms. Another type of hydrocarbon, aromatic hydrocarbons, consists of closed rings of carbon atoms. You can find ring structures in hydrocarbons, sometimes with the presence of double bonds. You can see this by comparing the structure of cyclohexane to benzene in the image below.

hydrocarbon-rings

Carbon can form five-and six membered rings. Single or double bonds may connect the carbons in the ring, and nitrogen may be substituted for carbon. Image Attribution: OpenStax Biology

Examples of biological molecules that incorporate the benzene ring include some amino acids and cholesterol and its derivatives, including the hormones estrogen and testosterone. You can also find the benzene ring in the herbicide 2,4-D. Benzene is a natural component of crude oil and has been classified as a carcinogen. Some hydrocarbons have both aliphatic and aromatic portions; beta-carotene is an example of such a hydrocarbon.

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