Organic Compounds

Organic compounds are, at the most basic level, compounds that contain carbon and hydrogen. These compounds are called organic because they were once believed to have been derived from living things, but that is not necessarily the case. There are millions of organic compounds that occur naturally or can be produced synthetically. Examples of organic compounds are carbohydrates, fats (lipids), proteins, and nucleic acids, which are the basis for the molecules of life. Organic compounds also include petroleum and natural gas, which are the main components of fossil fuels.

What are the two main groups of organic compounds?

Organic compounds are divided into two main groups. Hydrocarbons comprise compounds that contain only carbon and hydrogen atoms. They can be further classified as alkanes (only having a single carbon bond), alkenes (having a double carbon bond), alkynes (having a triple carbon bond), and arenes (carbons formed into a cyclic ring call benzene).

The second group of organic compounds is defined by a functional group that has replaced one of the hydrogen atoms in the molecule. Functional groups can be a single atom (like F, Cl, Br, or I) or a combination of atoms (NH2, OH, C=O, or SH). Functional groups influence the chemical reactivity of organic molecules and are important in organic synthesis. Common functional groups include oxygen-containing groups (alcohols, ethers, aldehydes, ketones, carboxylic acids, and carboxylic acid esters), nitrogen-containing groups (amines and amides), and sulfur-containing groups (thiols, thioethers, and thioesters). To find these specific functional groups, use the Fisher Scientific Chemical Structure Search.

What is organic synthesis?

Because of the almost infinite number of ways in which carbon can bond with itself and other elements, it’s no surprise that out of the millions of known organic compounds about 95 percent have highly diverse structures. Organic synthesis research is when scientists take building blocks (small molecules having those important functional groups), organic reagents (inorganic molecules, which make up the majority of the periodic table, or organic reactive molecules), solvents, and even catalysts and react them in new ways, creating new organic compounds that add to the already wide range of applications in all aspects of modern life. Another important aspect of organic synthesis research is purification and analysis of the reaction. Purification through crystallization, distillation, extraction, and chromatography allows for the new molecule of interest to be isolated. Analysis allows for the characterization of the molecule.  


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The organic chemical products presented in this section were classified by structural elements, such as functional group, using the ChemOnt taxonomy and ClassyFire database as referenced in the following articles:

1. Hastings et al. (2012). Structure-based classification and ontology in chemistry. Journal of Cheminformatics, 4-8.

[This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (]

2. Feunang, D. et al. (2016). ClassyFire: automated chemical classification with a comprehensive, computable taxonomy. Journal of Cheminformatics, 8-61.

[This article was distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License ( The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.]