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14.11 Organic Sulfur Compounds

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify thiols (mercaptans) by the presence of an SH group.
  2. The mild oxidation of thiols gives disulfides.

Because sulfur is in the same group (6A) of the periodic table as oxygen, the two elements have some similar properties. We might expect sulfur to form organic compounds related to those of oxygen, and indeed it does.

ThiolsA compound with an SH functional group. (also called mercaptans), which are sulfur analogs of alcohols, have the general formula RSH. Methanethiol (also called methyl mercaptan), has the formula CH3SH. Ethanethiol (ethyl mercaptan) is the most common odorant for liquid propane (LP) gas.

The mild oxidation of thiols gives compounds called disulfides.


As we note in Chapter 18 "Amino Acids, Proteins, and Enzymes", Section 18.4 "Proteins", the amino acids cysteine [HSCH2CH(NH2)COOH] and methionine [CH3SCH2CH2CH(NH2)COOH] contain sulfur atoms, as do all proteins that contain these amino acids. Disulfide linkages (–S–S–) between protein chains are extremely important in protein structure.

Thioethers, which are sulfur analogs of ethers, have the form general formula RSR′. An example is dimethylsulfide (CH3SCH3), which is responsible for the sometimes unpleasant odor of cooking cabbage and related vegetables. Note that methionine has a thioether functional group.

Career Focus: Paramedic

Paramedics are highly trained experts at providing emergency medical treatment. Their critical duties often include rescue work and emergency medical procedures in a wide variety of settings, sometimes under extremely harsh and difficult conditions. Like other science-based professions, their work requires knowledge, ingenuity, and complex thinking, as well as a great deal of technical skill. The recommended courses for preparation in this field include anatomy, physiology, medical terminology, and—not surprisingly—chemistry. An understanding of basic principles of organic chemistry, for example, is useful when paramedics have to deal with such traumas as burns from fuel (hydrocarbons) or solvent (alcohols, ethers, esters, and so on) fires and alcohol and drug overdoses.

To become a paramedic requires 2–4 y of training and usually includes a stint as an emergency medical technician (EMT). An EMT provides basic care, can administer certain medications and treatments, such as oxygen for respiratory problems and epinephrine (adrenalin) for allergic reactions, and has some knowledge of common medical conditions. A paramedic, in contrast, must have extensive knowledge of common medical problems and be trained to administer a wide variety of emergency drugs.

Paramedics usually work under the direction of a medical doctor with a title such as “medical director.” Some paramedics are employed by fire departments and may work from a fire engine that carries medical equipment as well as fire-fighting gear. Some work from hospital-sponsored ambulances and continue to care for their patients after reaching the hospital emergency room. Still other paramedics work for a government department responsible for emergency health care in a specific geographical area. Finally, some work for private companies that contract to provide service for a government body.

An experienced paramedic has a broad range of employment options, including training for mountain or ocean rescue, working with police department special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams, or working in isolated settings such as on oil rigs. With their expertise at treating and stabilizing patients before quickly moving them to a hospital, paramedics often provide the first critical steps in saving an endangered life. The following quotation, inscribed on the Arlington National Cemetery headstone of Army Lieutenant R. Adams Cowley, who is often called the “father” of shock trauma medicine, serves as the motto for many paramedic units: “Next to creating a life the finest thing a man can do is save one.” —Abraham Lincoln

Concept Review Exercises

  1. What is the functional group of a thiol? Write the condensed structural formula for ethanethiol (ethyl mercaptan).

  2. What is the functional group of a disulfide? Write the condensed structural formula for dipropyl disulfide.


  1. SH; CH3CH2SH

  2. –S–S–; CH3CH2CH2SSCH2CH2CH3

Key Takeaway

  • Thiols, thioethers, and disulfides are common in biological compounds.


  1. A common natural gas odorant is tert-butyl mercaptan. What is its condensed structural formula?

  2. Write the equation for the oxidation of ethanethiol to diethyl disulfide.


  1. (CH3)3CSH