By James Ashenhurst

What is Mutarotation?

Last updated: December 23rd, 2020 |

All About Mutarotation

The term “mutarotation” originates from the observed change in the optical rotation of the α- and β- anomers of glucose upon dissolution in water. Due to ring-chain tautomerism, the α- and β- forms slowly interconvert until equilibrium is established.

Table of Contents

  1. Mutarotation Is The Change In Optical Rotation Observed When Pure α- Or β- Anomers Are Dissolved In Water (or other solvents)
  2. Mutarotation Is Possible When α- Or β- Anomers Can Interconvert
  3. Mutarotation Is A Consequence Of Ring-Chain Tautomerism
  4. Mutarotation Is A General Property Of Cyclic Sugars Bearing A Hemiacetal
  5. Notes
  6. (Advanced) References and Further Reading

1. Mutarotation Is The Change In Optical Rotation Observed When Pure α- or β- Anomers Are Dissolved In Water (or other solvents)

In our recent post on ring-chain tautomerism, we said that there are two isomers of D-glucose in its 6-membered ring (“pyranose”) form.

These two diastereomers – which, to make matters more confusing, are called “anomers” in the context of sugar chemistry –  differ in the orientation of the hydroxyl group on C-1. (Note that C-1 is a hemiacetal. )

  • In the “alpha” (α) anomer, the OH group on C-1 is on the opposite side of the ring as the chain on C-5.
  • In the “beta” (β) anomer, the OH group on C-1 is on the same side of the ring as the C-5 substituent.


Each of these two forms can be synthesized and isolated as pure compounds.

  • The alpha (α)  anomer of D-glucose has a specific rotation of +112 degrees in water.
  • The beta (β)  anomer of D-glucose has a specific rotation of +19 degrees. (18.7 actually, but rounding up to 19).

Here’s the interesting thing. When either anomer is dissolved in water, the value of the specific rotation changes over time, eventually reaching the same value of +52.5°. 

  • The specific rotation of α-D-glucopyranose decreases from +112° to +52.5°.
  • The specific rotation of β-D-glucopyranose increases from +19° to +52.5°.

This behaviour is called mutarotation (literally, “change in rotation”).

2. Mutarotation Is Possible  When α- and β- Anomers Can Interconvert

Hold on.  Isn’t specific rotation of a molecule supposed to remain the same?

Yes – if it is indeed the same molecule! 

And therein lies the answer to the puzzle. For when the solutions whose specific rotations have changed to +52.5° are analyzed, they are found to no longer consist of 100% alpha (α) or 100% beta (β) anomers, but instead a ratio of alpha (α) (36%) and beta (β) (64% ) isomers.


Wait. What happened here? How did the alpha convert to the beta, and vice-versa?

3. Mutarotation Is A Consequence Of Ring-Chain Tautomerism

You may recall how we said in the last post on ring-chain tautomerism that the cyclic hemiacetal forms of sugars are in equilibrium with the straight-chain (“linear”) form.

That means that even if you start with a 100% pure sample of either the alpha or beta anomer, once it has been dissolved in water it can equilibrate, via the straight-chain form, to the other anomer. [If A is in equilibrium with B, and B is in equilibrium with C, then A is in equilibrium with C. That’s the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics].

The 36:64 ratio of alpha (α) to beta (β) represents the distribution of isomers when D-glucose is in equilibrium in water at 25° C.


Is mutarotation unique to glucose?

4. Mutarotation Is A General Property Of Cyclic Sugars Bearing A Hemiacetal 

No – it’s a general property of sugars, as well as (chiral) cyclic hemiacetals in general.

This phenomenon was first discovered in 1846 by French chemist Augustin-Pierre Dubrunfaut, who founded a factory for the production of alcohol from beet sugar. While studying the optical rotation of glucose, he noted that freshly dissolved glucose had a rotational value twice that which was previously observed in the literature. He also studied the mutarotation of lactose. (Interestingly, although Dubrunfaut was also the discoverer of fructose, he published no studies on its mutarotation – perhaps because fructose is one of the most rapidly mutarotating sugars) [Ref]

Interestingly, the structures of glucose and fructose had not been established at this point. It was not until 1895 that Tanret first reported on the two anomers of glucose, which readily explained Dubrunfaut’s observations.

Bonus question: given that the mechanism for the forward reaction was given in the previous post, can you draw a mechanism for the interconversion of alpha-D-glucose to beta-D-glucose? [A not uncommon exam question, by the way!]**

In the next post, we’ll discuss a tangent to ring-chain tautomerism: reducing sugars. 

Next Post: Reducing Sugars

Thanks for reading!


*The Zeroth Law Of Thermodynamics: If A is in equilibrium with B, and B is in equilibrium with C, then A is in equilibrium with C.

** Try and work out a mechanism for the conversion of a-glucopyranose to b-glucopyranose on your own. I’ll put a link to one solution in the comments. Hover here for a pop-up image.

(Advanced) References and Further Reading

This is a very classical part of organic chemistry. The change in optical activity of glucose solutions was first noted by Dubrunfant in 1846, and it was only in 1890 that the legendary chemist Prof. Emil Fischer proposed that this was due to a chemical cause. In 1896, Tanret isolated what he thought were three forms of glucose: the a form, with [a]D +105°, the b form, with [a]D +52.5°, and the g form, with [a]D +22°. Now we know that the a and g forms are distinct species (what we now know as the the a and b forms of D-glucose), and that Tanret’s b form is the equilibrium mixture of the two forms.

  1. —Studies of dynamic isomerism. I. The mutarotation of glucose
    T. Martin Lowry, D.Sc.
    J. Chem. Soc. Trans. 1903, 83, 1314-1323
    This paper is credited with introducing the term ‘mutarotation’ in the literature to describe the interconversion of the anomeric forms of glucose.
    C. S. Hudson
    Journal of the American Chemical Society 1910, 32 (7), 889-894
    An old review that covers early work on understanding the mutarotation of glucose, and gives a full coverage of the development of the story up to that time.
    C. S. Hudson and J. K. Dale
    Journal of the American Chemical Society 1917 39 (2), 320-328
    DOI: 10.1021/ja02247a017
    This early paper contains experimental procedures for the isolation of pure a- and b-glucose.
  4. Crystallization of β-d-Glucose and Analysis with a Simple Glucose Biosensor
    José I. Reyes-de-Corcuera, Michael A. Teruel, and Daniel M. Jenkins
    Journal of Chemical Education 2009, 86 (8), 959
    : 10.1021/ed086p959
    This paper describes an experiment that can be carried out by undergraduates for observing the mutarotation of glucose.


Comment section

15 thoughts on “What is Mutarotation?

  1. Wouldn’t mutarotation require a catalyst? In the typical mechanism for hemiacetal/hemiketal formation we use an acid catalyst. Why would mutarotation be able to occur spontaneously in water?

    1. It would be faster in the presence of acid, but mutarotation occurs in the absence of a catalyst. Hemiacetal formation is reversible. The original experiments from the 1800’s when this phenomenon were discovered were all in water.

    2. I have wondered about this. Why does a hemi-acetal open under neutral pH but a full acetal requires acid to open?

      I assume it must be a hydrogen bond between water lone pairs and the hydrogen on the hydroxyl of the hemi-acetal. This would weaken the OH bond and facilitate ring opening.

      This seems like an example of “general base” catalysis, where a deprotonation is concerted with the ring opening. Though I am not sure if this applies when it is the solvent doing the catalysis.

  2. in glucose molecule and alpha and beta d glucose angle change during mutarotation,In the sense when glucose molecule has 52.5 degree,when it convert alpha D(+) glucoe it changes about 111 degree .What is the reason behind this?

    Awaiting for your revert on my email id

    thanks and reply get instantly

    Best regards

  3. Does impurity affect the mutarotation of glucose, are the results for a pure and impure glucose be different after mutarotation

    1. Yes, impurities could dramatically affect the mutarotation of glucose. The rotation values given are for pure compounds, for which an accurate calculation of concentration can be made. If the sample is impure (and especially if it is contaminated with an optically active impurity) the measured number will be way off.

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