By Janet Rae-Dupree, Pat DuPree

Atoms tend to arrange themselves in the most stable patterns possible, which means that they have a tendency to complete or fill their outermost electron orbits. They join with other atoms to do just that. The force that holds atoms together in collections known as molecules is referred to as a chemical bond. There are two main types and some secondary types of chemical bonds:

1Ionic bond

Ionic boning involves a transfer of an electron, so one atom gains an electron while one atom loses an electron. One of the resulting ions carries a negative charge (anion), and the other ion carries a positive charge (cation). Because opposite charges attract, the atoms bond together to form a molecule.

2Covalent bond

The most common bond in organic molecules, a covalent bond involves the sharing of electrons between two atoms. The pair of shared electrons forms a new orbit that extends around the nuclei of both atoms, producing a molecule. There are two secondary types of covalent bonds that are relevant to biology — polar bonds and hydrogen bonds.

3Polar bond

Two atoms connected by a covalent bond may exert different attractions for the electrons in the bond, producing an unevenly distributed charge. The result is known as a polar bond, an intermediate case between ionic and covalent bonding, with one end of the molecule slightly negatively charged and the other end slightly positively charged.

These slight imbalances in charge distribution are indicated in the figure by lowercase delta symbols with a charge superscript (+ or –). Although the resulting molecule is neutral, at close distances the uneven charge distribution can be important. Water is an example of a polar molecule; the oxygen end has a slight positive charge whereas the hydrogen ends are slightly negative. Polarity explains why some substances dissolve readily in water and others do not.

4Hydrogen bond

Because they’re polarized, two adjacent H2O (water) molecules can form a linkage known as a hydrogen bond, where the (electronegative) hydrogen atom of one H2O molecule is electrostatically attracted to the (electropositive) oxygen atom of an adjacent water molecule.

Consequently, molecules of water join together transiently in a hydrogen-bonded lattice. Hydrogen bonds have only about 1/20 the strength of a covalent bond, yet even this force is sufficient to affect the structure of water, producing many of its unique properties, such as high surface tension, specific heat, and heat of vaporization. Hydrogen bonds are important in many life processes, such as in replication and defining the shape of DNA molecules.