Articles

Why nature chose phosphates

Science  06 Mar 1987:
Vol. 235, Issue 4793, pp. 1173-1178
DOI: 10.1126/science.2434996

Abstract

Phosphate esters and anhydrides dominate the living world but are seldom used as intermediates by organic chemists. Phosphoric acid is specially adapted for its role in nucleic acids because it can link two nucleotides and still ionize; the resulting negative charge serves both to stabilize the diesters against hydrolysis and to retain the molecules within a lipid membrane. A similar explanation for stability and retention also holds for phosphates that are intermediary metabolites and for phosphates that serve as energy sources. Phosphates with multiple negative charges can react by way of the monomeric metaphosphate ion PO3- as an intermediate. No other residue appears to fulfill the multiple roles of phosphate in biochemistry. Stable, negatively charged phosphates react under catalysis by enzymes; organic chemists, who can only rarely use enzymatic catalysis for their reactions, need more highly reactive intermediates than phosphates.

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