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In previous sections we learned that a biomolecular nucleophilic substitution (SN2) reaction is a type of nucleophilic substitution whereby a lone pair of electrons on a nucleophile attacks an electron deficient electrophilic center and bonds to it, resulting in the expulsion of a leaving group. It is possible for the nucleophile to attack the electrophilic center in two ways.
In a frontside attack, the nucleophile attacks the electrophilic center on the same side as the leaving group. When a frontside attack occurs, the stereochemistry of the product remains the same; that is, we have retention of configuration.
In a backside attack, the nucleophile attacks the electrophilic center on the side that is opposite to the leaving group. When a backside attack occurs, the stereochemistry of the product does not stay the same. There is inversion of configuration.
The following diagram illustrates these two types of nucleophilic attacks, where the frontside attack results in retention of configuration; that is, the product has the same configuration as the substrate. The backside attack results in inversion of configuration, where the product's configuration is opposite that of the substrate.
Experimental Observation: All SN2 Reactions Proceed With Nucleophilic Backside Attacks
Experimental observation shows that all SN2 reactions proceed with inversion of configuration; that is, the nucleophile will always attack from the backside in all SN2 reactions. To think about why this might be true, remember that the nucleophile has a lone pair of electrons to be shared with the electrophilic center, and the leaving group is going to take a lone pair of electrons with it upon leaving. Because like charges repel each other, the nucleophile will always proceed by a backside displacement mechanism.
SN2 Reactions Are Stereospecific
The SN2 reaction is stereospecific. A stereospecific reaction is one in which different stereoisomers react to give different stereoisomers of the product. For example, if the substrate is an R enantiomer, a frontside nucleophilic attack results in retention of configuration, and the formation of the R enantiomer. A backside nucleophilic attack results in inversion of configuration, and the formation of the S enantiomer.
Conversely, if the substrate is an S enantiomer, a frontside nucleophilic attack results in retention of configuration, and the formation of the S enantiomer. A backside nucleophilic attack results in inversion of configuration, and the formation of the R enantiomer.
In conclusion, SN2 reactions that begin with the R enantiomer as the substrate will form the S enantiomer as the product. Those that begin with the S enantiomer as the substrate will form the R enantiomer as the product. This concept also applies to substrates that are cis and substrates that are trans. If the cis configuration is the substrate, the resulting product will be trans. Conversely, if the trans configuration is the substrate, the resulting product will be cis.
Next section: SN2 Reactions-The Leaving Group
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