What’s Pyrophosphate?

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Pyrophosphate compounds, including esters, salts, and anions, are important for cellular functioning and industrial chemistry. They can be produced through phosphorylation reactions and have various applications, such as preventing oxidation in leather processing and acting as a chelating agent in food additives. Sodium pyrophosphate is a primary ingredient in Bakewell Baking Powder and is also used in toothpaste. Calcium pyrophosphate is known for easing an arthritic condition called CPDD.

In biochemistry, the term pyrophosphate (PPi) is used to refer to chemical compounds that include the esters, salts, and anion of pyrophosphoric acid. The latter, being a negatively charged anhydrous phosphate acid, becomes reactive when heated. When suspended in water, however, the pyrophosphoric acid anion also readily triggers the splitting of water molecules into hydrogen and hydroxide ions in a process called pyrophosphorolysis, which produces inorganic phosphate. Specifically, this involves the conversion of cellular adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to adenosine monophosphate (AMP).

Changes in energy load in phosphorylation reactions with proteins and other organic molecules produce different forms of pyrophosphate. However, the final result will always contain one of these ions. For example, farnesyl pyrophosphate is obtained through the synthesis of hydrocarbons known as terpenes. Dimethylallyl pyrophosphate is a byproduct of mevalonic acid.

While these compounds are essential for normal cellular functioning in nearly all living organisms, they also play an important role in industrial chemistry. For example, disodium pyrophosphate is used in leather processing to prevent oxidation that can lead to iron oxide stains. It is also used to improve the fluidity of cement and petroleum when added to act as a plasticizer. This substance is also added to leavened baked goods and canned meats and seafood as a chelating agent to adjust the pH of the preservative solution.

Sodium pyrophosphate has many applications in the food industry as a chelating agent and thickener. Combined with cornstarch, it is a primary ingredient in Bakewell Baking Powder, which gained notoriety during WWII when regular baking powder became scarce. This powder is still sold today as a gluten-free alternative to baking powder and cream of tartar. It is also a common food additive found in frozen foods, ready-made puddings, and some soy products.

This powder is also useful as a dispersing agent and oxidation preventer. In fact, it was once commonly used in laundry detergents to remove and discourage redeposition of stains. This practice was largely discontinued in the 1970s, however, due to the negative environmental impact of releasing phosphates into waterways. It is still used as a stain deterrent in commercial toothpastes, as well as aiding in the removal of tartar and plaque from teeth.

Calcium pyrophosphate is also an additive to dental floss and toothpaste, although this chemical compound is best known for easing an arthritic condition called calcium pyrophosphate deposition disease (CPDD) due to a buildup of dihydrate crystals in synovial fluid and in the tissues surrounding the joints. As a result, inflammation occurs, resulting in pain and impaired movement. While the exact mechanism behind this disease is still unclear, it is suspected that it may be related to elevated ATP levels.

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