In chemistry thioesters are compounds with the functional group R–S–CO–R'. They are the product of esterification between a carboxylic acid and a thiol. In biochemistry, the best-known thioesters are derivatives of coenzyme A, e.g., acetyl-CoA.
The most typical route to thioester involves the reaction of an acid chloride with an alkali metal salt of a thiol:
- RSNa + R′COCl → R′COSR + NaCl
Another common route entails the displacement of halides by the alkali metal salt of a thiocarboxylic acid. For example, thioacetate esters are commonly prepared by alkylation of potassium thioacetate:
- CH3COSK + RX → CH3COSR + KX
The analogous alkylation of an acetate salt is rarely practiced. The alkylation can be conducted using Mannich bases and the thiocarboxylic acid:
- CH3COSH + R′2NCH2OH → CH3COSCH2NR′2 + H2O
- RSH + R′CO2H → RSC(O)R′ + H2O
The carbonyl center in thioesters is reactive toward nucleophiles, even water. Thus, thioesters are common intermediates in the conversion of alkyl halides to alkyl thiols. Thioesters and amines combine to give amides:
Thioesters are common intermediates in many biosynthetic reactions, including the formation and degradation of fatty acids and mevalonate, precursor to steroids. Examples include malonyl-CoA, acetoacetyl-CoA, propionyl-CoA, and cinnamoyl-CoA. Acetogenesis proceeds via the formation of acetyl-CoA. The biosynthesis of lignin, which comprises a large fraction of the Earth's land biomass, proceeds via a thioester derivative of caffeic acid. These thioesters arise analogously to those prepared synthetically, the difference being that the dehydration agent is ATP. In addition, thioesters play an important role in the tagging of proteins with ubiquitin, which tags the protein for degradation.
Thioesters and the origin of life
As posited in a "Thioester World", thioesters are possible precursors to life. 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.
However, due to the high free energy change of thioester's hydrolysis and correspondingly their low equilibrium constants, it is unlikely that these compounds could have accumulated abiotically to any significant extent especially in hydrothermal vent conditions.
Isomeric compounds: thionoesters
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.
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