Carboxylic acids are widespread in nature, often combined with other functional groups. Simple alkyl carboxylic acids, composed of four to ten carbon atoms, are liquids or low melting solids having very unpleasant odors. The fatty acids are important components of the biomolecules known as lipids, especially fats and oils. As shown in the following table, these long-chain carboxylic acids are usually referred to by their common names, which in most cases reflect their sources. A mnemonic phrase for the C10 to C20 natural fatty acids capric, lauric, myristic, palmitic, stearic and arachidic is: "Curly, Larry & Moe Perform Silly Antics" (note that the names of the three stooges are in alphabetical order).
Interestingly, the molecules of most natural fatty acids have an even number of carbon atoms. Analogous compounds composed of odd numbers of carbon atoms are perfectly stable and have been made synthetically. Since nature makes these long-chain acids by linking together acetate units, it is not surprising that the carbon atoms composing the natural products are multiples of two. The double bonds in the unsaturated compounds listed on the right are all cis (or Z).
The following formulas are examples of other naturally occurring carboxylic acids. The molecular structures range from simple to complex, often incorporate a variety of other functional groups, and many are chiral.
Aspirin, Arachidonic Acid, and Prostaglandins
Prostaglandins were first discovered and isolated from human semen in the 1930s by Ulf von Euler of Sweden. Thinking they had come from the prostate gland, he named them prostaglandins. It has since been determined that they exist and are synthesized in virtually every cell of the body. Prostaglandins, are like hormones in that they act as chemical messengers, but do not move to other sites, but work right within the cells where they are synthesized. Prostaglandins are unsaturated carboxylic acids, consisting of of a 20 carbon skeleton that also contains a five member ring. They are biochemically synthesized from the fatty acid, arachidonic acid. See the graphic on the left. The unique shape of the arachidonic acid caused by a series of cis double bonds helps to put it into position to make the five member ring.
Structure of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2)
Prostaglandins are unsaturated carboxylic acids, consisting of of a 20 carbon skeleton that also contains a five member ring and are based upon the fatty acid, arachidonic acid. There are a variety of structures one, two, or three double bonds. On the five member ring there may also be double bonds, a ketone, or alcohol groups.
There are a variety of physiological effects associated with prostaglandins including:
- Activation of the inflammatory response, production of pain, and fever. When tissues are damaged, white blood cells flood to the site to try to minimize tissue destruction. Prostaglandins are produced as a result.
- Blood clots form when a blood vessel is damaged. A type of prostaglandin called thromboxane stimulates constriction and clotting of platelets. Conversely, PGI2, is produced to have the opposite effect on the walls of blood vessels where clots should not be forming.
- Certain prostaglandins are involved with the induction of labor and other reproductive processes. PGE2 causes uterine contractions and has been used to induce labor.
- Prostaglandins are involved in several other organs such as the gastrointestinal tract (inhibit acid synthesis and increase secretion of protective mucus), increase blood flow in kidneys, and leukotriens promote constriction of bronchi associated with asthma.
Ball-and-stick model of the aspirin molecule, as found in the solid state. Single-crystal X-ray diffraction data from Kim, Y.; Machida, K.; Taga, T.; Osaki, K. (1985). "Structure Redetermination and Packing Analysis of Aspirin Crystal". Chem. Pharm. Bull. 33 (7): 2641-2647. ISSN 1347-5223.
Effects of Aspirin and other Pain Killers on Prostaglandin Production
When you see that prostaglandins induce inflammation, pain, and fever, what comes to mind but aspirin. Aspirin blocks an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, COX-1 and COX-2, which is involved with the ring closure and addition of oxygen to arachidonic acid converting to prostaglandins. The acetyl group on aspirin is hydrolzed and then bonded to the alcohol group of serine as an ester. This has the effect of blocking the channel in the enzyme and arachidonic can not enter the active site of the enzyme. By inhibiting or blocking this enzyme, the synthesis of prostaglandins is blocked, which in turn relives some of the effects of pain and fever. Aspirin is also thought to inhibit the prostaglandin synthesis involved with unwanted blood clotting in coronary heart disease. At the same time an injury while taking aspirin may cause more extensive bleeding.