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Characteristic Chemical Reactions

Characteristic Chemical Reactions

Chemical reactions occur when two or more atoms bond together to form molecules or when bonded atoms are broken apart. The substances that "go in" to a chemical reaction are called the reactants (by convention, these are usually listed on the left side of a chemical equation), and the substances found that "come out" of the reaction are known as the products (by convention, these are usually found on the right side of a chemical equation). An arrow linking the reactants and products is typically drawn between them to indicate the direction of the chemical reaction. By convention, for one-way reactions (a.k.a. unidirectional), reactants are listed on the left and products on the right of the single-headed arrow. However, you should be able to identify reactants and products of unidirectional reactions that are written in any orientation (e.g. right-to-left; top-to-bottom, diagonal right-to-left, around a circular arrow, etc.) by using the arrow to orient yourself.

In chemical reactions, the atoms and elements present in the reactant(s) must all also be present in the product(s). Similarly, there can be nothing present in the products that was not present in the reactants. This is because chemical reactions are governed by the law of conservation of mass, which states that matter cannot be created nor destroyed in a chemical reaction. This means that when you examine a chemical reaction, you must try to account for everything that goes in AND make sure that you can find it all in the stuff that comes out!

Just as you can express mathematical calculations in equations such as 2 + 7 = 9, you can use chemical equations to show how reactants become products. By convention, chemical equations are typically read or written from left to right. Reactants on the left are separated from products on the right by a single- or double-headed arrow indicating the direction in which the chemical reaction proceeds. For example, the chemical reaction in which one atom of nitrogen and three atoms of hydrogen produce ammonia would be written as:

\[N + 3H→NH_3.\]

Correspondingly, the breakdown of ammonia into its components would be written as:

\[NH3→N + 3H.\]

Note that in either direction, you find 1 N and 3 Hs on both sides of the equation.


While all chemical reactions can technically proceed in both directions some reactions tend to favor one direction over the other.  Depending on the degree to which a reaction spontaneously proceed in either both or one direction a different name can be given to characterize the reactions reversibility.  Some chemical reactions, such as the one shown above, proceed mostly in one direction with the "reverse" direction happening on such long time scales or with such low probability that, for practical purposes, we ignore the "reverse" reaction.   These unidirectional reactions are also called irreversible reactions and are depicted with a single-headed (unidirectional) arrow. By contrast, reversible reactions are those that can readily proceed in either direction. Reversible reactions are usually depicted by a chemical equation with a double-headed arrow pointing toward both the reactants and the products. In practice, you will find a continuum of chemical reactions; some proceed mostly in one direction and nearly never reverse, while others change direction easily depending on various factors like the relative concentrations of reactants and products.  These terms are just ways of describing reactions with different equilibrium points.       

Use of vocabulary

You may have realized that the terms "reactants" and "products" are relative to the direction of the reaction. If you have a reaction that is reversible, though, the products of running the reaction in one direction become the reactants of the reverse. You can label the same compound with two different terms. That can be a bit confusing. So, what is one to do in such cases? The answer is that if you want to use the terms "reactants" and "products", you must be clear about the direction of reaction that you are referring to - even for when discussing reversible reactions.  The choice of terms, "reactants" or "products" that you use will communicate to others the directionality of the reaction that you are considering.

Let's look at an example of a reversible reaction in biology and discuss an important extension of these core ideas that arises in a biological system. In human blood, excess hydrogen ions (H+) bind to bicarbonate ions (HCO3-), forming an equilibrium state with carbonic acid (H2CO3). This reaction is readily reversible. If carbonic acid were added to this system, some of it would be converted to bicarbonate and hydrogen ions as the chemical system sought out equilibrium.

\[HCO_3^−+ H^+\rightleftharpoons H_2CO_3\]

The example above examines and "idealized" chemical systems as it might occur in a test-tube. In biological systems, however, equilibrium for a single reaction is rarely reached as it might be in the test-tube. In biological systems, reactions do not occur in isolation. Rather, the concentrations of the reactants and/or products are constantly changing, often with a product of one reaction being a reactant for another reaction. These linked reactions form what are known as biochemical pathways. The immediate example below illustrates this point. While the reaction between the bicarbonate/proton and carbonic acid is highly reversible, it turns out that, physiologically, this reaction is usually "pulled" toward the formation of carbonic acid. Why? As shown below, carbonic acid becomes a reactant for another biochemical reactionthe conversion of carbonic acid to CO2 and H2O. This conversion reduces the concentration of H2CO3, thus pulling the reaction between bicarbonate and H+ to the right. Moreover, a third, unidirectional reaction, the removal of CO2 and H2O from the system, also pulls the reaction further to the right. These kinds of reactions are important contributors to maintaining the H+ homeostasis of our blood.

\[ HCO_3^- + H^+ \rightleftharpoons H_2CO_3 \rightleftharpoons CO_2 + H_20 \rightarrow waste\]

The reaction involving the synthesis of carbonic acid is actually linked to its breakdown into \(CO_2\) and \(H_2O\). These products are then removed from the system/body when they are exhaled. Together, the breakdown of carbonic acid and the act of exhaling the products pull the first reaction to the right.

Synthesis reactions

Many macromolecules are made from smaller subunits, or building blocks, called monomers. Monomers covalently link to form larger molecules known as polymers. Often, the synthesis of polymers from monomers will also produce water molecules as products of the reaction. This type of reaction is known as dehydration synthesis or condensation reaction.


Figure 1. In the dehydration synthesis reaction depicted above, two molecules of glucose are linked together to form the disaccharide maltose. In the process, a water molecule is formed.

Attribution: Marc T. Facciotti (original work)

In a dehydration synthesis reaction (Figure 1), the hydrogen of one monomer combines with the hydroxyl group of another monomer, releasing a molecule of water. At the same time, the monomers share electrons and form covalent bonds. As additional monomers join, this chain of repeating monomers forms a polymer. Different types of monomers can combine in many configurations, giving rise to a diverse group of macromolecules. Even one kind of monomer can combine in a variety of ways to form several different polymers; for example, glucose monomers are the constituents of starch, glycogen, and cellulose.

In the carbohydrate monomer example above, the polymer is formed by a dehydration reaction; this type of reaction is also used to add amino acids to a growing peptide chain and nucleotides to the growing DNA or RNA polymer. Visit the modules on Amino Acids, Lipids, and Nucleic Acids to see if you can identify the water molecules that are removed when a monomer is added to the growing polymer.


Figure 2. This depicts, using words, (decorated with functional groups colored in red) a generic dehydration synthesis/condensation reaction.

Attribution: Marc T. Facciotti (original work)

Hydrolysis reactions

Polymers are broken down into monomers in a reaction known as hydrolysis. A hydrolysis reaction includes a water molecule as a reactant (Figure 3). During these reactions, a polymer can be broken into two components: one product carries a hydrogen ion (H+) from the water, while the second product carries the water's remaining hydroxide (OH).


Figure 3. In the hydrolysis reaction shown here, the disaccharide maltose is broken down to form two glucose monomers with the addition of a water molecule. Note that this reaction is the reverse of the synthesis reaction shown in Figure 1 above.

Attribution: Marc T. Facciotti (original work)


Figure 4. This depicts using words (decorated with functional groups colored in red) a generic hydrolysis reaction.

Attribution: Marc T. Facciotti (original work)

Dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis reactions are catalyzed, or “sped up,” by specific enzymes. Note that both dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis reactions involve the making and breaking of bonds between the reactantsa reorganization of the bonds between the atoms in the reactants. In biological systems (our bodies included), food in the form of molecular polymers is hydrolyzed into smaller molecules by water via enzyme-catalyzed reactions in the digestive system. This allows for the smaller nutrients to be absorbed and reused for a variety of purposes. In the cell, monomers derived from food may then be reassembled into larger polymers that serve new functions.

Helpful links:

Visit this site to see visual representations of dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis.
Example of Hydrolysis with Enzyme Action is shown in this 3 minute video entitled: Hydrolysis of Sucrose by Sucrase.


Exchange/transfer reactions

We will also encounter reactions termed exchange reactions. In these types of reactions, "parts" of molecules are transferred between one anotherbonds are broken to release a part of a molecule and bonds are formed between the released part and another molecule. These enzyme-catalyzed reactions are usually reasonably complex multistep chemical processes.

Figure 5. An exchange reaction in which both synthesis and hydrolysis can occur, chemical bonds are both formed and broken, is depicted using a word analogy.