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Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002.

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Biochemistry. 5th edition.

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Section 1.3Chemical Bonds in Biochemistry

The essence of biological processes—the basis of the uniformity of living systems—is in its most fundamental sense molecular interactions; in other words, the chemistry that takes place between molecules. Biochemistry is the chemistry that takes place within living systems. To truly understand biochemistry, we need to understand chemical bonding. We review here the types of chemical bonds that are important for biochemicals and their transformations.

The strongest bonds that are present in biochemicals are covalent bonds, such as the bonds that hold the atoms together within the individual bases shown in Figure 1.3. A covalent bond is formed by the sharing of a pair of electrons between adjacent atoms. A typical carbon-carbon (C-C) covalent bond has a bond length of 1.54 Å and bond energy of 85 kcal mol-1 (356 kJ mol-1). Because this energy is relatively high, considerable energy must be expended to break covalent bonds. More than one electron pair can be shared between two atoms to form a multiple covalent bond. For example, three of the bases in Figure 1.4 include carbon-oxygen (C=O) double bonds. These bonds are even stronger than C-C single bonds, with energies near 175 kcal mol-1 (732 kJ mol-1).

For some molecules, more than one pattern of covalent bonding can be written. For example, benzene can be written in two equivalent ways called resonance structures. Benzene's true structure is a composite of its two resonance structures. A molecule that can be written as several resonance structures of approximately equal energies has greater stability than does a molecule without multiple resonance structures. Thus, because of its resonance structures, benzene is unusually stable.

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Chemical reactions entail the breaking and forming of covalent bonds. The flow of electrons in the course of a reaction can be depicted by curved arrows, a method of representation called “arrow pushing.” Each arrow represents an electron pair.

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1.3.1. Reversible Interactions of Biomolecules Are Mediated by Three Kinds of Noncovalent Bonds

Readily reversible, noncovalent molecular interactions are key steps in the dance of life. Such weak, noncovalent forces play essential roles in the faithful replication of DNA, the folding of proteins into intricate three-dimensional forms, the specific recognition of substrates by enzymes, and the detection of molecular signals. Indeed, all biological structures and processes depend on the interplay of noncovalent interactions as well as covalent ones. The three fundamental noncovalent bonds are electrostatic interactions, hydrogen bonds, and van der Waals interactions. They differ in geometry, strength, and specificity. Furthermore, these bonds are greatly affected in different ways by the presence of water. Let us consider the characteristics of each:


Electrostatic interactions. An electrostatic interaction depends on the electric charges on atoms. The energy of an electrostatic interaction is given by Coulomb's law:

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where E is the energy, q1 and q2 are the charges on the two atoms (in units of the electronic charge), r is the distance between the two atoms (in angstroms), D is the dielectric constant (which accounts for the effects of the intervening medium), and k is a proportionality constant (k = 332, to give energies in units of kilocalories per mole, or 1389, for energies in kilojoules per mole). Thus, the electrostatic interaction between two atoms bearing single opposite charges separated by 3 Å in water (which has a dielectric constant of 80) has an energy of 1.4 kcal mol-1 (5.9 kJ mol-1).


Hydrogen bonds. Hydrogen bonds are relatively weak interactions, which nonetheless are crucial for biological macromolecules such as DNA and proteins. These interactions are also responsible for many of the properties of water that make it such a special solvent. The hydrogen atom in a hydrogen bond is partly shared between two relatively electronegative atoms such as nitrogen or oxygen. The hydrogen-bond donor is the group that includes both the atom to which the hydrogen is more tightly linked and the hydrogen atom itself, whereas the hydrogen-bond acceptor is the atom less tightly linked to the hydrogen atom (Figure 1.9). Hydrogen bonds are fundamentally electrostatic interactions. The relatively electronegative atom to which the hydrogen atom is covalently bonded pulls electron density away from the hydrogen atom so that it develops a partial positive charge (δ+). Thus, it can interact with an atom having a partial negative charge (δ-) through an electrostatic interaction.

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Hydrogen bonds are much weaker than covalent bonds. They have energies of 1–3 kcal mol-1 (4–13 kJ mol-1) compared with approximately 100 kcal mol-1 (418 kJ mol-1) for a carbon-hydrogen covalent bond. Hydrogen bonds are also somewhat longer than are covalent bonds; their bond distances (measured from the hydrogen atom) range from 1.5 to 2.6 Å; hence, distances ranging from 2.4 to 3.5 Å separate the two nonhydrogen atoms in a hydrogen bond. The strongest hydrogen bonds have a tendency to be approximately straight, such that the hydrogen-bond donor, the hydrogen atom, and the hydrogen-bond acceptor lie along a straight line.


van der Waals interactions. The basis of a van der Waals interaction is that the distribution of electronic charge around an atom changes with time. At any instant, the charge distribution is not perfectly symmetric. This transient asymmetry in the electronic charge around an atom acts through electrostatic interactions to induce a complementary asymmetry in the electron distribution around its neighboring atoms. The resulting attraction between two atoms increases as they come closer to each other, until they are separated by the van der Waals contact distance (Figure 1.10). At a shorter distance, very strong repulsive forces become dominant because the outer electron clouds overlap.

Energies associated with van der Waals interactions are quite small; typical interactions contribute from 0.5 to 1.0 kcal mol-1 (from 2 to 4 kJ mol-1) per atom pair. When the surfaces of two large molecules come together, however, a large number of atoms are in van der Waals contact, and the net effect, summed over many atom pairs, can be substantial.

Figure 1.9. Hydrogen Bonds that Include Nitrogen and Oxygen Atoms.

Figure 1.9

Hydrogen Bonds that Include Nitrogen and Oxygen Atoms. The positions of the partial charges (δ+ and δ-) are shown.

Figure 1.10. Energy of a van der Waals Interaction as Two Atoms Approach One Another.

Figure 1.10

Energy of a van der Waals Interaction as Two Atoms Approach One Another. The energy is most favorable at the van der Waals contact distance. The energy rises rapidly owing to electron- electron repulsion as the atoms move closer together than this distance. (more...)

1.3.2. The Properties of Water Affect the Bonding Abilities of Biomolecules

Weak interactions are the key means by which molecules interact with one another—enzymes with their substrates, hormones with their receptors, antibodies with their antigens. The strength and specificity of weak interactions are highly dependent on the medium in which they take place, and the majority of biological interactions take place in water. Two properties of water are especially important biologically:

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Water is a polar molecule. The water molecule is bent, not linear, and so the distribution of charge is asymmetric. The oxygen nucleus draws electrons away from the hydrogen nuclei, which leaves the region around the hydrogen nuclei with a net positive charge. The water molecule is thus an electrically polar structure.


Water is highly cohesive. Water molecules interact strongly with one another through hydrogen bonds. These interactions are apparent in the structure of ice (Figure 1.11). Networks of hydrogen bonds hold the structure together; simi-lar interactions link molecules in liquid water and account for the cohesion of liquid water, although, in the liquid state, some of the hydrogen bonds are broken. The highly cohesive nature of water dramatically affects the interactions between molecules in aqueous solution.

Figure 1.11. Structure of Ice.

Figure 1.11

Structure of Ice. Hydrogen bonds (shown as dashed lines) are formed between water molecules.

What is the effect of the properties of water on the weak interactions discussed in Section 1.3.1? The polarity and hydrogen-bonding capability of water make it a highly interacting molecule. Water is an excellent solvent for polar molecules. The reason is that water greatly weakens electrostatic forces and hydrogen bonding between polar molecules by competing for their attractions. For example, consider the effect of water on hydrogen bonding between a carbonyl group and the NH group of an amide.

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A hydrogen atom of water can replace the amide hydrogen atom as a hydrogen-bond donor, whereas the oxygen atom of water can replace the carbonyl oxygen atom as a hydrogen-bond acceptor. Hence, a strong hydrogen bond between a CO group and an NH group forms only if water is excluded.

The dielectric constant of water is 80, so water diminishes the strength of electrostatic attractions by a factor of 80 compared with the strength of those same interactions in a vacuum. The dielectric constant of water is unusually high because of its polarity and capacity to form oriented solvent shells around ions. These oriented solvent shells produce electric fields of their own, which oppose the fields produced by the ions. Consequently, the presence of water markedly weakens electrostatic interactions between ions.

The existence of life on Earth depends critically on the capacity of water to dissolve a remarkable array of polar molecules that serve as fuels, building blocks, catalysts, and information carriers. High concentrations of these polar molecules can coexist in water, where they are free to diffuse and interact with one another. However, the excellence of water as a solvent poses a problem, because it also weakens interactions between polar molecules. The presence of water-free microenvironments within biological systems largely circumvents this problem. We will see many examples of these specially constructed niches in protein molecules. Moreover, the presence of water with its polar nature permits another kind of weak interaction to take place, one that drives the folding of proteins (Section 1.3.4) and the formation of cell boundaries (Section 12.4).

The essence of these interactions, like that of all interactions in biochemistry, is energy. To understand much of biochemistry—bond formation, molecular structure, enzyme catalysis—we need to understand energy. Thermodynamics provides a valuable tool for approaching this topic. We will revisit this topic in more detail when we consider enzymes (Chapter 8) and the basic concepts of metabolism (Chapter 14).

1.3.3. Entropy and the Laws of Thermodynamics

The highly structured, organized nature of living organisms is apparent and astonishing. This organization extends from the organismal through the cellular to the molecular level. Indeed, biological processes can seem magical in that the well-ordered structures and patterns emerge from the chaotic and disordered world of inanimate objects. However, the organization visible in a cell or a molecule arises from biological events that are subject to the same physical laws that govern all processes—in particular, the laws of thermodynamics.

How can we understand the creation of order out of chaos? We begin by noting that the laws of thermodynamics make a distinction between a system and its surroundings. A system is defined as the matter within a defined region of space. The matter in the rest of the universe is called the surroundings. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that the total energy of a system and its surroundings is constant. In other words, the energy content of the universe is constant; energy can be neither created nor destroyed. Energy can take different forms, however. Heat, for example, is one form of energy. Heat is a manifestation of the kinetic energy associated with the random motion of molecules. Alternatively, energy can be present as potential energy, referring to the ability of energy to be released on the occurrence of some process. Consider, for example, a ball held at the top of a tower. The ball has considerable potential energy because, when it is released, the ball will develop kinetic energy associated with its motion as it falls. Within chemical systems, potential energy is related to the likelihood that atoms can react with one another. For instance, a mixture of gasoline and oxygen has much potential energy because these molecules may react to form carbon dioxide and release energy as heat. The First Law requires that any energy released in the formation of chemical bonds be used to break other bonds, be released as heat, or be stored in some other form.

Another important thermodynamic concept is that of entropy. Entropy is a measure of the level of randomness or disorder in a system. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the total entropy of a system and its surroundings always increases for a spontaneous process. At first glance, this law appears to contradict much common experience, particularly about biological systems. Many biological processes, such as the generation of a well-defined structure such as a leaf from carbon dioxide gas and other nutrients, clearly increase the level of order and hence decrease entropy. Entropy may be decreased locally in the formation of such ordered structures only if the entropy of other parts of the universe is increased by an equal or greater amount.

An example may help clarify the application of the laws of thermodynamics to a chemical system. Consider a container with 2 moles of hydrogen gas on one side of a divider and 1 mole of oxygen gas on the other (Figure 1.12). If the divider is removed, the gases will intermingle spontaneously to form a uniform mixture. The process of mixing increases entropy as an ordered arrangement is replaced by a randomly distributed mixture.

Figure 1.12. From Order to Disorder.

Figure 1.12

From Order to Disorder. The spontaneous mixing of gases is driven by an increase in entropy.

Other processes within this system can decrease the entropy locally while increasing the entropy of the universe. A spark applied to the mixture initiates a chemical reaction in which hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water:

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If the temperature of the system is held constant, the entropy of the system decreases because 3 moles of two differing reactants have been combined to form 2 moles of a single product. The gas now consists of a uniform set of indistinguishable molecules. However, the reaction releases a significant amount of heat into the surroundings, and this heat will increase the entropy of the surrounding molecules by increasing their random movement. The entropy increase in the surroundings is enough to allow water to form spontaneously from hydrogen and oxygen (Figure 1.13).

Figure 1.13. Entropy Changes.

Figure 1.13

Entropy Changes. When hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water, the entropy of the system is reduced, but the entropy of the universe is increased owing to the release of heat to the surroundings.

The change in the entropy of the surroundings will be proportional to the amount of heat transferred from the system and inversely proportional to the temperature of the surroundings, because an input of heat leads to a greater increase in entropy at lower temperatures than at higher temperatures. In biological systems, T [in kelvin (K), absolute temperature] is assumed to be constant. If we define the heat content of a system as enthalpy (H), then we can express the relation linking the entropy (S) of the surroundings to the transferred heat and temperature as a simple equation:

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The total entropy change is given by the expression

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Substituting equation 1 into equation 2 yields

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Multiplying by -T gives

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The function -TΔS has units of energy and is referred to as free energy or Gibbs free energy, after Josiah Willard Gibbs, who developed this function in 1878:

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The free-energy change, ΔG, will be used throughout this book to describe the energetics of biochemical reactions.

Recall that the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that, for a reaction to be spontaneous, the entropy of the universe must increase. Examination of equation 3 shows that the total entropy will increase if and only if

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Rearranging gives TΔSsystem > ΔH, or entropy will increase if and only if

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In other words, the free-energy change must be negative for a reaction to be spontaneous. A negative free-energy change occurs with an increase in the overall entropy of the universe. Thus, we need to consider only one term, the free energy of the system, to decide whether a reaction can occur spontaneously; any effects of the changes within the system on the rest of the universe are automatically taken into account.

1.3.4. Protein Folding Can Be Understood in Terms of Free-Energy Changes

The problem of protein folding illustrates the utility of the concept of free energy. Consider a system consisting of a solution of unfolded protein molecules in aqueous solution (Figure 1.14). Each unfolded protein molecule can adopt a unique conformation, so the system is quite disordered and the entropy of the collection of molecules is relatively high. Yet, protein folding proceeds spontaneously under appropriate conditions. Thus, entropy must be increasing elsewhere in the system or in the surroundings. How can we reconcile the apparent contradiction that proteins spontaneously assume an ordered structure, and yet entropy increases? The entropy decrease in the system on folding is not as large as it appears to be, because of the properties of water. Molecules in aqueous solution interact with water molecules through the formation of hydrogen and ionic interactions. However, some molecules (termed nonpolar molecules) cannot participate in hydrogen or ionic interactions. The interactions of nonpolar molecules with water are not as favorable as are interactions between the water molecules themselves. The water molecules in contact with these nonpolar surfaces form “cages” around the nonpolar molecule, becoming more well ordered (and, hence, lower in entropy) than water molecules free in solution. As two such nonpolar molecules come together, some of the water molecules are released, and so they can interact freely with bulk water (Figure 1.15). Hence, nonpolar molecules have a tendency to aggregate in water because the entropy of the water is increased through the release of water molecules. This phenomenon, termed the hydrophobic effect, helps promote many biochemical processes.

Figure 1.14. Protein Folding.

Figure 1.14

Protein Folding. Protein folding entails the transition from a disordered mixture of unfolded molecules to a relatively uniform solution of folded protein molecules.

Figure 1.15. The Hydrophobic Effect.

Figure 1.15

The Hydrophobic Effect. The aggregation of nonpolar groups in water leads to an increase in entropy owing to the release of water molecules into bulk water.

How does the hydrophobic effect favor protein folding? Some of the amino acids that make up proteins have nonpolar groups. These nonpolar amino acids have a strong tendency to associate with one another inside the interior of the folded protein. The increased entropy of water resulting from the interaction of these hydrophobic amino acids helps to compensate for the entropy losses inherent in the folding process.

Hydrophobic interactions are not the only means of stabilizing protein structure. Many weak bonds, including hydrogen bonds and van der Waals interactions, are formed in the protein-folding process, and heat is released into the surroundings as a consequence. Although these interactions replace interactions with water that take place in the unfolded protein, the net result is the release of heat to the surroundings and thus a negative (favorable) change in enthalpy for the system.

The folding process can occur when the combination of the entropy associated with the hydrophobic effect and the enthalpy change associated with hydrogen bonds and van der Waals interactions makes the overall free energy negative.

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By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2002, W. H. Freeman and Company.
Bookshelf ID: NBK22567


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