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Introduction to Organic Chemistry

The Importance of Organic Chemistry

It is still a great challenge to understand the chemistry of life, which includes, among other things, the chemistry of nucleic acids, proteins, and carbohydrates.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which is the carrier of the genetic code in all living beings.
Proteins, which play an important part in all essential processes of all organisms.
Carbohydrates (saccharides), which among other things are important to the energy balance of the body.

How the first organic molecules were formed at the origin of life is still an unsettled question. It is assumed that methane (CH4) was the most important carbon compound on earth several million years ago. At that time the atmosphere of the earth was made up of methane and the inorganic compounds water (H2O), ammonia (NH3), and hydrogen (H2).

In 1952, Stanley Lloyd Miller imitated the origin of evolution of these few chemical compounds in a chemical experiment. He demonstrated that short-chain hydrocarbons, formaldehyde, urea, and prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) are formed if a mixture of methane, water, ammonia, and hydrogen is irradiated with flashes of light. From these reaction products long-chain hydrocarbons, carboxylic acids, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids were formed. So the components of life could have been spontaneously formed in the atmosphere of the earth from the simple inorganic compounds water, ammonia, and hydrogen as well as methane.

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Organic compounds

Organic chemistry deals not only with the chemistry of life and the natural carbon compounds but also with the huge, daily increasing number of synthetic carbon compounds. At the end of the last century the number of these carbon compounds amounted to 15 million with an annual increase of circ. 600,000 compounds. (Current values).

We are living in a world which is largely shaped by organic compounds, e.g.:

  • the clothes we wear (wool, cotton, leather, synthetics);
  • the commodities we use (wood, plastic);
  • the sources of primary energy we still use every day (petroleum, natural gas, coal);
  • the remedies with which illnesses can be cured.

But organic compounds can also put our lives at risk, e.g.:

  • the insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which accumulates in nature and the food chain more and more;
  • the highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins;
  • the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which among other things are used as propellants in spray cans and which damage the protective ozone layer of the atmosphere.

All the more reason the knowledge and control of organic chemistry must be improved, so it can be applied advantageously to men and nature.


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