By James Ashenhurst

Pyranoses and Furanoses: Ring-Chain Tautomerism In Sugars

Last updated: February 17th, 2023 |

Pyranoses , Furanoses, Straight-Chain Glucose, And Ring-Chain Tautomerism

  • Sugars such as glucose exist in equilibrium between their open-chain form and various cyclic forms where an OH group and an aldehyde combine to form a cyclic hemiacetal.
  • In the case of glucose, a 5- or 6- membered ring can form, depending on which hydroxyl group adds to the aldehyde. Equilibrium tends to favor the six-membered cyclic form, called “pyranose” since it resembles pyran, although some of the five-membered cyclic form (“furanose“) is also present along with the open-chain form.
  • In the process of forming the hemiacetal a new chiral center is created. This gives rise to two diastereomers which for historical reasons are called anomers and designated “alpha” or “beta” depending on the orientation of the -OH group.

equilibrium between pyranose open chain form and furanose with glucose summary

Table of Contents

  1. Glucose Comes In Many Forms
  2. Hydrates, Hemiacetals, and Cyclic Hemiacetals
  3. Ring-chain Tautomerism In Glucose: The “Pyranose” Form
  4. Ring-Chain Tautomerism In Glocose, II: The “Furanose” Form
  5. Glucose Has Several Structures, All In Equlibrium With Each Other?
  6. Conclusion: Pyranose vs Furanose vs Open-Chain Forms of Glucose
  7. Notes

1. Glucose Comes In Many Forms

What’s the structure of glucose?

A simple question! but one with many “right” answers.

The first question to ask, which we covered in our recent post on D- and L- sugars, is: “Which enantiomer are you talking about?”.  If, by “glucose”, you mean the enantiomer we commonly encounter as blood sugar, then you’re referring to D-glucose. In its open chain form, when drawn as a Fischer projection, D-glucose looks like this:


The fact that I had to specify “open-chain form” might tip you off that something is amiss. That’s because glucose, like a snake that bites its own tail, or a belt – can adopt a cyclic form as well. And not just one cyclic form, but several!

Before diving into these, it’s worth a quick refresher on the two main functional groups in glucose (and other sugars) which make this possible: hydroxyl groups and aldehydes (or ketones, in the case of keto-sugars like fructose). 

2. Hydrates, Hemiacetals, and Cyclic Hemiacetals

You may recall that aldehydes (and ketones, but we’ll focus on aldehydes here) can reversibly react with water to form “hydrates“. (relevant article: Acetals, Hemiacetals, Hydrates).  Hydrates form readily in solution, but they tend not to be easy to isolate; the equilibrium tends to favor the starting aldehyde. [Note 1].


Refresher on mechanism – hover here    to bring up a picture of the mechanism or click this link.

Similarly, aldehydes can react with alcohols to form hemiacetals. Like hydrate formation, hemiacetal formation is an equilibrium and the equilibrium tends to favor the starting aldehyde. [If you heat with acid, excess alcohol and sequester the water that forms, it forms an acetal ; this is not in equilibrium with the hemiacetal,  which is why acetals are a great protecting group for aldehydes/ketones]. 


If you need a refresher on the mechanism,  hover here  or click this link.

Here’s the twist – and the relevance to glucose. If the alcohol and the aldehyde are part of the same molecule, then it’s possible for the hemiacetal formation to be intramolecular, forming a cyclic hemiacetal in the process. The mechanism is exactly the same as in the previous case.  Note the difference is that I’ve just drawn ONE extra bond (in blue)


In the case above (5-hydroxy pentanal), we form a six-membered ring.

Here’s how it works, step by step:


So, you might ask: what’s the “correct” structure of this molecule – the “linear” or the “cyclic” form?

The answer is that since these two forms are in equilibrium,  they are both “correct” structures of this molecule, even though they are structural isomers of each other. 

You might recall seeing a similar type of situation with certain ketones and aldehydes, where a ketone is in equilibrium between a “keto-” form and an “enol” form which are themselves structural isomers of each other. We called that keto-enol tautomerism. hover here to see an example or click on this link

The equilibrium between the linear and cyclic form of 5-hydroxy pentanal (above) is a different type of tautomerism we call ring-chain tautomerism. 

3. Ring-Chain Tautomerism In Glucose: The “Pyranose” Form

This is exactly what happens in glucose. The alcohol on C-5 of glucose can react with the aldehyde (C-1) to form a six-membered ring (I skipped drawing in the proton transfer in the drawing below). 


The linear and cyclic forms are structural isomers that exist in equilibrium with each other, so this is another example of ring-chain tautomerism.

The 6-membered cyclic form of sugars is usually called the “pyranose” form in reference to the cyclic ether pyran.

If you’re eagle-eyed, you might have noticed that in the process of forming a new C-O bond, a new chiral centre is formed at C-1. This new chiral centre can have one of two configurations, (S) or (R). Since there are other chiral centers on glucose and their R/S configurations don’t change, that means we’ll end up with a pair of diastereomers: stereoisomers that are not enantiomers. Rather than using the (R) and (S) descriptors, the convention with sugars is to name them according to the orientation of the OH groups on C-1 relative to the C-5 group. These two isomers are referred to as the alpha (α) and beta (β) isomers [Note 2] for more detail on this]

  • In the alpha (α)  isomer, the OH group on C-1 is on the opposite face of the ring from the CH2OH substituent on C-5. This can be seen from drawing the molecule as a chair, but it is often helpful to draw a hexagonal version of a sugar in perspective (called a “Haworth projection“) that makes the stereochemical relationships more clear.
  • In the beta (β) isomer, the OH group on C-1 is on the same face of the ring relative to the CH2OH substituent on C-5.


At the risk of inciting a pitchfork-wielding mob angry at the introduction of even more terminology,  these two isomers are often referred to as “anomers“, but that is a topic for another day. 

4. Ring-Chain Tautomerism In Glucose, II – The Furanose Form

But wait! that’s not all, folks!

The pyranose form of glucose is just one of the cyclic forms that glucose can adopt.

It’s also possible for the hydroxyl group on C-4 of glucose to attack the aldehyde. This forms a five-membered ring. We call this form the furanose form, in reference to the cyclic 5-membered ether furan. (Helpful mnemonic: Five = Furanose)


As with the pyranose, forming the 5-membered ring also generates a pair of diastereomers which differ in configuration at C-1.  We likewise call these the alpha and beta forms, as above:


So what’s the structure of glucose? Not so straightforward, is it?

5. Glucose Has Several Structures, All In Equilibrium With Each Other

We’ve seen five separate isomers so far: the straight chain form, the pyranose form (alpha and beta), and the furanose form (alpha and beta).

In aqueous solution, these five forms are all in equilibrium with each other!

When you dissolve glucose in water, here’s the distribution you get:


The pyranose forms dominate, with a small amount of the open-chain and furanose forms comprising the rest of the mixture.

What about 3 and 4 (or 7) membered rings, you might ask? [ Note 3. tl;dr they are insignificant]

6. Conclusion: Pyranose vs Furanose vs Open-Chain Forms Of Glucose

Although we’ve mainly discussed glucose in this post because it is the most familiar sugar, ring-chain tautomerism is an important property of all 5- and 6- carbon sugars.

Another familiar example is ribose, which comprises the sugar backbone of RNA:


Fructose is another one.

For Next Time: A Puzzle

Understanding this property of sugars will help us untangle a mystery which baffled early carbohydrate chemists.

  • Pure α-D-glucose has a specific rotation of + 112°.
  • Pure β-D-glucose has a specific rotation of + 19°.
  • Yet when either of these two is dissolved in water, the optical rotation slowly changes to a value of + 52.5° .

Can you guess why?

We’ll talk about that in the next post in this series, on mutarotation (literally, “change in rotation”).

Many thanks to Tom Struble for assistance with this post. 


Note 1. Aldehydes with adjacent electron-withdrawing groups tend to form more stable hydrates since the aldehyde carbon is much more electrophilic. Trichloroacetaldehyde (chloral hydrate) often known as “knockout drops”, is a prominent example.

Note 2. The α / β terminology pre-dates the R/S (Cahn-Ingold Prelog) terminology by several decades. The C-1 carbon is called the “anomeric” carbon and the α and β diastereoisomers are referred to as “anomers”. α and β are defined according to the relationship between the anomeric carbon and the anomeric reference carbon, which is the stereocenter farthest from the anomeric carbon in the ring. In D-glucose in the pyranose form the anomeric carbon is C-1 and the reference carbon is C-5.  Here’s how IUPAC defines it.

Note 3. They’re not significant. Three and four-membered rings are relatively unstable due to their considerable ring strain, while the rate of seven-membered ring formation is extremely slow, relative to the 5- and 6- membered ring cases. ]

Note 4. From “Ring-Chain Tautomerism of Hydroxy Aldehydes”, Hurd C. D.; Saunders, W. H. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1952 74, 5324.
DOI: 10.1021/ja01141a030
ring chain tautomerism of hydroxy aldehydes

SUPER COOL. Reddit user Bean357 made this amazing stopmotion video of ring-chain tautomerism in glucose
(click takes you to video).



Comment section

17 thoughts on “Pyranoses and Furanoses: Ring-Chain Tautomerism In Sugars

  1. Hello
    for reaction between aldehyde and alcohol , proton gets transferred to the carbonyl group right, and we considered that the alcohol is in excess
    how does proton transfer occur in case of ring-chain tautomerism …i couldnt get that part since you havent shown it there !

  2. Hey James, great post! I’m reading some conflicting information in a textbook (essentials of glycobiology) which states that in the alpha anomer of D-glucose, C-1 and C-5 have the same configuration and are on the same plane, while the beta anomer has different conformations.

  3. A quick one James.

    Show the different step in the mechanism of reaction whereby D glucose gives rise to pyranose and furanose forms.

  4. Hi James,
    I’m taking a course in Biochemistry and I just dropped by for an assignment.
    super grateful I came here.
    Thanks for the somewhat simplified and informative posts you share.

  5. Amazing topic about sugar chemistry. I am a chemistry student and i read your blog with lot of interest and joy. Thank you for sharing informative blog.

  6. Hey James, a quick question.
    Why is the furanose form of fructose(~29%) more dominant than that of glucose (<1%)?

    1. Great question! The answer is not obvious! The hydroxyl groups of carbohydrates can hydrogen-bond both with each other and with the solvent. Each isomer (alpha+ beta furanose, alpha + beta pyranose) has a unique three-dimensional structure and the most favored structure will be that which maximizes the strength of the inter- and intramolecular hydrogen bonds. To make it even more complicated, there are solvent effects too. In water, fructose is 42% furanose and even higher (75% in DMSO See: However in the gas phase, fructose favors a pyranose form ( | J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2013, 135, 2845−2852).
      Sorry I can’t give you an easier answer!

  7. No, the alpha and beta D-glucopyranose forms are not formed in 50:50 ratios. The ratios are about 64:36 favoring the alpha.
    As to how it was determined; one way to do it would be to dissolve glucose in D2O and take a proton NMR spectrum. The proton NMR will show the pyranose forms but no obvious sign of the furanose forms. They must exist in some proportion but you would be able to say that they are below a certain threshold.
    I do not have access to this article but it might be informative:

  8. Hey James, two quick questions:
    1) Are the alpha-D-glucose and beta-D-glucose pyranose forms produced in equivalent 50/50 ratios?
    2) How did you determine that the open-chain and furanose forms of glucose are less than 1% in equilibrium?

    Thanks for the post, very informative!

  9. Thank you for this summary. Question: Do you know how the determination of the ratio of Pyranose:Aldose:Furanose glucose forms in water was measured?

  10. This is a great background/refresher on sugar chemistry, as I do biomass chemistry, so thank you! However, isn’t sucrose table sugar (see intro paragraph)? Glucose is not particularly sweet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.