Vitamin B12: Experiments Concerning the Origin of Its Molecular Structure


  • Prof. Dr. Albert Eschenmoser

    Corresponding author
    1. Laboratorium für Organische Chemie der Eidgenössischen Technischen Hochschule, ETH-Zentrum, Universitätstrasse 16, CH-8092 Zürich (Switzerland)
    • Laboratorium für Organische Chemie der, Eidgenössischen Technischen Hochschule, ETH-Zentrum, Universitätstrasse 16, CH-8092 Zürich (Switzerland)
    Search for more papers by this author

  • The preceding page shows Figure 11 of this article.


Following the chemical synthesis of vitamin B12, a search was begun for a potentially biomimetic “dark” variant of the photochemical A/D-secocorrin → corrin cycloisomerization, the central ring-closure step in one of the two cobyric acid syntheses. Significantly, not just one but a whole family of such variants was discovered. According to what is currently known, one of these variants can indeed be regarded as a chemical model for the reaction path followed by Nature in the biosynthetic construction of the corrin ring. These chemical studies of vitamin B12 biosynthesis had revealed that the A/D-ring junction, regarded as the main obstacle to a chemical vitamin B12 synthesis at the outset, is in fact a structural element that is formed readily and in a variety of ways from structurally appropriate precursors. More recent investigations have shown that the same holds for other specific structural elements of the vitamin B12 molecule, including the characteristic arrangement of double bonds in the corrin chromophore, the special dimension of the macrocyclic ring of the corrin ligand, the specific attachment of the nucleotide loop to the propionic acid side chain of ring D, and the characteristic constitutional arrangement of the side chains around the ligand periphery (which vitamin B12 shares with all uroporphinoid cofactors). All these outwardly complex structural elements are found to “self-assemble” with surprising ease under structurally appropriate preconditions; the amount of “external instruction” required for their formation turns out to be surprisingly small in view of the complexity and specificity of these structural elements. We view these findings as steps on the way toward a chemical rationalization of the vitamin B12 structure. The goal is to arrive experimentally at a perception of the biomolecule's intrinsic potential for structural self-assembly. This potential, together with the specific type of reactivity related to the biological function, is considered to be responsible for the biomolecule having been chosen by natural selection. The chemical rationalization of the structure of biomolecules is an objective of organic natural product chemistry. The field of natural product synthesis provides appropriate conceptual and methodological tools to approach this objective experimentally.