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General structure of a thioester.

Thioesters are compounds with the functional group C-S-CO-C. They are the product of esterification between a carboxylic acid and a thiol. Thioesters are widespread in biochemistry, the best known derivative being acetyl-CoA.



Analogously to the synthetic routes to esters, thioesters are prepared from thiols and carboxylic acids in the presence of dehydrating agents:[1]

RSH + R'CO2H → RSC(O)R' + H2O

A typical dehydration agent is DCC. Acid anhydrides and some lactones also react with thiols in the presence of base.

They also arise via carbonylation of alkynes and alkenes in the presence of thiols.[2]


The carbonyl center in thioesters is reactive toward nucleophiles, the reactivity being reminiscent of but milder than acid chlorides. Thus, thioesters and amines combine to give amides:

R"NH2 + RSC(O)R' → R"2NC(O)R' + RSH

The C-H groups adjacent to the carbonyl in thioesters are mildly acidic and undergo aldol condensations. This kind of reaction occurs in the biosynthesis of fatty acids.


Thioesters are common intermediates in many biosynthetic reactions, including the formation and degradation of fatty acids and mevalonate, precursor to steroids. The biosynthesis of lignin proceeds via the thioester derivative of caffeic acid.[3] Examples include malonyl-CoA, acetoacetyl-CoA, propionyl-CoA, cinnamoyl-CoA. Acetogenesis proceeds via the formation of acetyl-CoA.


Thioesters and the origin of life

As posited in a "Thioester World," thioesters are possible precursors to life.[4] As de Duve explains:

It is revealing that thioesters are obligatory intermediates in several key processes in which ATP is either used or regenerated. Thioesters are involved in the synthesis of all esters, including those found in complex lipids. They also participate in the synthesis of a number of other cellular components, including peptides, fatty acids, sterols, terpenes, porphyrins, and others. In addition, thioesters are formed as key intermediates in several particularly ancient processes that result in the assembly of ATP. In both these instances, the thioester is closer than ATP to the process that uses or yields energy. In other words, thioesters could have actually played the role of ATP in a "thioester world" initially devoid of ATP. Eventually, [these] thioesters could have served to usher in ATP through its ability to support the formation of bonds between phosphate groups.

Isomeric compounds: thionoesters

Skeletal formula of methyl thionobenzoate

Thionoesters are isomeric with thioesters. In a thionoester, sulfur replaces the carbonyl oxygen in an ester. Methyl thionobenzoate is C6H5C(S)OCH3. Such compounds are typically prepared by the reaction of the thioacyl chloride with an alcohol, but they can also be made by the reaction of Lawesson's reagent with esters.[5]



  1. ^
  2. ^ Werner Bertleff, Michael Roeper, Xavier Sava “Carbonylation” Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry 2007, Wiley-VCH. {DOI| 10.1002/14356007.a05_217.pub2}
  3. ^ Nelson, D. L.; Cox, M. M. "Lehninger, Principles of Biochemistry" 3rd Ed. Worth Publishing: New York, 2000. ISBN 1-57259-153-6.
  4. ^ de Duve, Christian (Sept./Oct. 1995), American Scientist
  5. ^ R. J. Cremlyn “An Introduction to Organosulfur Chemistry” John Wiley and Sons: Chichester (1996). ISBN 0 471 95512 4.


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