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Organic compounds

Content objective:

What are we learning and why are we learning this? Content, procedures, or skills.

Vocabulary objective

Tier II: High frequency words used across content areas. Key to understanding directions & relationships, and for making inferences.

Tier III: Low frequency, domain specific terms.

Building on what we already know

Make connections to prior knowledge. This is where we build from.


What are organic compounds? The simple but wrong definition is “compounds that contain carbon.” Why is this incorrect? Carbon-containing salts, like sodium carbonate – Na2CO3 – aren’t organic. (In fact, no salts are compounds.)

sodium carbonate from Wikipedia

Also, compounds that only have one carbon, like CO and CO2, aren’t organic.

And compounds consisting only of C and O (oxocarbons) aren’t organic, even though they can contain many C atoms.

Oxocarbon from Wikipedia

So what is an organic compound?

Organic compounds are compounds based C and H skeletons

And there are many, many families of organic compounds. Here are a few:

Families of organic compounds Britannica


Are “organic” compounds more natural than man-made compounds? No.

Are “organic” compounds alive? No.

Then why are they called “organic”?

When scientists first discovered organic molecules, the original examples they found came from living things: Proteins, fats and carbohydrates are all organic compounds, and they were named this was because – at the time – “organic” meant “made by a living organism.”

However, later on scientists discovered many other organic compounds not made by living things.  Perhaps they should have renamed them to “C and H containing compounds”, but the old name stuck.

Does this have anything to do with “organic” foods?

Nope, not in the slightest.  In recent years food producers have begun selling items they call “organic”, but they’re using the word in a totally different way, not related to chemistry. For them, “organic” means that only certain supposedly natural and safe pesticides and fertilizers are allowed to be used in farming, while others are prohibited.

Is all life on Earth based on organic compounds?

Yes! Despite many years of research, scientists have never found any life on Earth that isn’t based on organic chemistry.

Could any form of life exist, that isn’t organic? Uncertain. This is currently a matter of speculation and research. Based on what we know about planetary development, and how chemistry itself works, it is really hard to see how non-organic life could develop. But perhaps it is possible. Carl Sagan has written about possible ways that life could exist without organic compounds.

Carbon has a valence of four – this allows it to bond to other atoms in many different ways. A huge number of compounds can be made with carbon, and so “their range of applications enormous. They either form the basis of, or are important constituents of, many commercial products including pharmaceuticals; petrochemicals and products made from them (including lubricants, solvents, etc.); plastics; fuels and explosives; etc.” {Wikipedia}


Naming organic compounds

Naming organic compounds. Mr. Kent’s Chemistry Page

Burning organic compounds in the presence of oxygen

Types of organic compounds




Pesticides, including Alar

Smoke, from burning wood

Soot, ash, and smoke from burning wood


The LRI & Odour Database – Odour Data

Learning Standards

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework

HS-LS1-6. Construct an explanation based on evidence that organic molecules are primarily composed of six elements, where carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms may combine with nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus to form monomers that can further combine to form large carbon-based macromolecules.
Clarification Statements:
• Monomers include amino acids, mono- and disaccharides, nucleotides, and fatty acids.
• Organic macromolecules include proteins, carbohydrates (polysaccharides), nucleic acids, and lipids.
State Assessment Boundary:
• Details of specific chemical reactions or identification of specific macromolecule structures are not expected in state assessment.

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