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IUPAC name
141-46-8 YesY
ChEBI CHEBI:17071 YesY
ChemSpider 736 YesY
Jmol 3D model Interactive image
KEGG C00266 YesY
PubChem 756
Molar mass 60.052 g/mol
Density 1.065 g/mL
Melting point 97 °C (207 °F; 370 K)
Boiling point 131.3 °C (268.3 °F; 404.4 K)
Related compounds
Related aldehydes


Except where otherwise noted, data are given for materials in their standard state (at 25 °C [77 °F], 100 kPa).
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Infobox references

Glycolaldehyde is the organic compound with the formula HOCH2-CHO. It is the smallest possible molecule that contains both an aldehyde group and a hydroxyl group. It is a highly reactive molecule that occurs both in the biosphere and in the interstellar medium. It is normally supplied as a white solid.


Glycolaldehyde exists as depicted above as a gas. As a solid and molten liquid, it exists as a dimer. In aqueous solution, it exists as a mixture of at least four species, which rapidly interconvert.[1]

Structures and distribution of glycolaldehyde as a 20% solution in water. Notice that the free aldehyde is a minor component.

It is the only possible diose, a 2-carbon monosaccharide, although a diose is not strictly a saccharide. While not a true sugar, it is the simplest sugar-related molecule.[2]


Glycolaldehyde is the second most abundant compound formed when preparing pyrolysis oil (up to 10% by weight).[3]


It can form by action of ketolase on fructose 1,6-bisphosphate in an alternate glycolysis pathway. This compound is transferred by thiamine pyrophosphate during the pentose phosphate shunt.

In purine catabolism, xanthine is first converted to urate. This is converted to 5-hydroxyisourate, which decarboxylates to allantoin and allantoic acid. After hydrolyzing one urea, this leaves glycolureate. After hydrolyzing the second urea, glycolaldehyde is left. Two glycolaldehydes condense to form erythrose 4-phosphate, which goes to the pentose phosphate shunt again.

Role in formose reaction

Glycolaldehyde is an intermediate in the formose reaction. In the formose reaction, two formaldehyde molecules condense to make glycolaldehyde. Glycolaldehyde then is converted to glyceraldehyde. The presence of this glycolaldehyde in this reaction demonstrates how it might play an important role in the formation of the chemical building blocks of life. Nucleotides, for example, rely on the formose reaction to attain its sugar unit. Nucleotides are essential for life, because they compose the genetic information and coding for life.

Theorized role in abiogenesis

It is often invoked in theories of abiogenesis.[4][5] In the laboratory, it can be converted to amino acids.[6] and short dipeptides[7] may have facilitated the formation of complex sugars. For example, L-valyl-L-valine was used as a catalyst to form tetroses from glycolaldehyde. Theoretical calculations have additionally shown the feasibility of dipeptide-catalyzed synthesis of pentoses.[8] This formation showed stereospecific, catalytic synthesis of D-ribose, the only naturally occurring enantiomer of ribose. Since the detection of this organic compound, many theories have been developed related various chemical routes to explain its formation in stellar systems.

Formation of glycolaldehyde in star dust

It was found that UV-irradiation of methanol ices containing CO yielded organic compounds such as glycolaldehyde and methyl formate, the more abundant isomer of glycolaldehyde. The abundances of the products slightly disagree with the observed values found in IRAS 16293-2422, but this can be accounted for by temperature changes. Ethylene Glycol and glycolaldehyde require temperatures above 30 K.[9][10] The general consensus among the astrochemistry research community is in favor of the grain surface reaction hypothesis. However, some scientists believe the reaction occurs within denser and colder parts of the core. The dense core will not allow for irradiation as stated before. This change will completely alter the reaction forming glycolaldehyde.[11]

Formation in space

Glycolaldehyde was found in a low-mass molecular cloud of a forming star (IRAS 16293-2422). It was found in a high-mass cores as well.

Sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star.[12]

The different conditions studied indicate how problematic it could be to study chemical systems that are light-years away. The conditions for the formation of glycolaldehyde are still unclear. At this time, the most consistent formation reactions seems to be on the surface of ice in cosmic dust.

Glycolaldehyde has been identified in gas and dust near the center of the Milky Way galaxy,[13] in a star-forming region 26000 light-years from Earth,[14] and around a protostellar binary star, IRAS 16293-2422, 400 light years from Earth.[15][16] Observation of in-falling glycolaldehyde spectra 60 AU from IRAS 16293-2422 suggests that complex organic molecules may form in stellar systems prior to the formation of planets, eventually arriving on young planets early in their formation.[10]

Detection in space

The interior region of a dust cloud is known to be relatively cold. With temperatures as cold as 4 Kelvin the gases within the cloud will freeze and fasten themselves to the dust, which provides the reaction conditions conducive for the formation of complex molecules such as glycolaldehyde. When a star has formed from the dust cloud, the temperature within the core will increase. This will cause the molecules on the dust to evaporate and be released. The molecule will emit radio waves that can be detected and analyzed. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submilliter Array (ALMA) first detected glycolaldehyde. ALMA consists of 66 antennas that can detect the radio waves emitted from cosmic dust.[17]

On October 23, 2015, Science Advances published a paper by researchers at the Paris Observatory announcing the discovery of glycolaldehyde and ethyl alcohol on Comet Lovejoy, the first such identification of these substances in a comet.[18][19]


  1. Varoujan A. Yaylayan, Susan Harty-Majors, Ashraf A. Ismail "Investigation of the mechanism of dissociation of glycolaldehyde dimer (2,5-dihydroxy-1,4-dioxane) by FTIR spectroscopy" Carbohydrate Research 1998, vol. 309, pp. 31–38. doi:10.1016/S0008-6215(98)00129-3
  2. Carroll, P., Drouin, B., and Widicus Weaver, S., (2010). "The Submillimeter Spectrum of Glycolaldehyde" (PDF). Astrophys. J. 723: 845–849. Bibcode:2010ApJ...723..845C. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/723/1/845. 
  3. Moha, Dinesh; Charles U. Pittman, Jr.; Philip H. Steele (10 March 2006). "Pyrolysis of Wood/Biomass for Bio-oil:  A Critical Review". Energy & Fuels. 206 (3): 848–889. doi:10.1021/ef0502397. Retrieved September 5, 2013. 
  4. Kim,, H.; Ricardo, A.; Illangkoon, H. I.; Kim, M. J.; Carrigan, M. A.; Frye, F.; Benner, S. A. (2011). "Synthesis of Carbohydrates in Mineral-Guided Prebiotic Cycles". Journal of the American Chemical Society. 133 (24)): 9457–9468. doi:10.1021/ja201769f. 
  5. Benner,, S. A.; Kim, H.; Carrigan, M. A. (2012). "Asphalt, Water, and the Prebiotic Synthesis of Ribose, Ribonucleosides, and RNA". Accounts of Chemical Research. 45 (12): 2025–2034. doi:10.1021/ar200332w. 
  6. Pizzarello, Sandra; Weber, A. L. (2004). "Prebiotic amino acids as asymmetric catalysts". Science. 303: 1151. doi:10.1126/science.1093057. 
  7. Weber, Arthur L.; Pizzarello, S. (2006). "The peptide-catalyzed stereospecific synthesis of tetroses: A possible model for prebiotic molecular evolution". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 103: 12713–12717. doi:10.1073/pnas.0602320103. 
  8. Cantillo,, D.; Ávalos, M.; Babiano, R.; Cintas, P.; Jiménez, J. L.; Palacios, J. C. (2012). "On the Prebiotic Synthesis of D-Sugars Catalyzed by L-Peptides Assessments from First-Principles Calculations". Chemistry a European Journal. 18: 8795–8799. doi:10.1002/chem.201200466. 
  9. Öberg, K. I.; Garrod, R. T.; van Dishoeck, E. F.; Linnartz, H. (September 2009). "Formation rates of complex organics in UV irradiation CH_3OH-rich ices. I. Experiemtns". Astronomy and Astrophysics. 504 (3): 891–913. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/200912559. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Jørgensen, J. K.; Favre, C.; Bisschop, S.; Bourke, T.; Dishoeck, E.; Schmalzl, M. (2012). "Detection of the simplest sugar, glycolaldehyde, in a solar-type protostar with ALMA" (PDF). eprint. 
  11. Woods, P. M (2013). "Glycolaldehyde Formation via the Dimerisation of the Formyl Radical". The Astrophysical Journal. 777 (50). doi:10.1088/0004-637X/777/2/90.  Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  12. "Sweet Result from ALMA". ESO Press Release. Retrieved 3 September 2012. 
  13. Hollis, J.M., Lovas, F.J., & Jewell, P.R. (2000). "Interstellar Glycolaldehyde: The First Sugar" (PDF). The Astrophysical Journal. 540 (2): 107–110. Bibcode:2000ApJ...540L.107H. doi:10.1086/312881. 
  14. Beltran, M. T.; Codella, C.; Viti, S.; Neri, R.; Cesaroni, R. (November 2008). "First detection of glycolaldehyde outside the Galactic Center". eprint arXiv:0811.3821. 
  15. Than, Ker (August 29, 2012). "Sugar Found In Space". National Geographic. Retrieved August 31, 2012. 
  16. Staff (August 29, 2012). "Sweet! Astronomers spot sugar molecule near star". AP News. Retrieved August 31, 2012. 
  17. "Building blocks of life found around young star". Retrieved December 11, 2013. 

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