ester, any one of a group of organic compounds with general formula RCO2R′ (where R and R′ are alkyl groups or aryl groups) that are formed by the reaction between an alcohol and an acid. For example, when ethanol and acetic acid react, ethyl acetate (an ester) and water are formed; the reaction is called esterification. Ethyl acetate is used as a solvent. Methyl acetate, formed by the reaction between methanol and acetic acid, is a sweet-smelling liquid used in making perfumes, extracts, and lacquers. Esters react with water (hydrolysis) under basic conditions to form an alcohol and an acid. When heated with a hydroxide certain esters decompose to yield soap and glycerin; the process is called saponification. Common fats and oils are mixtures of various esters, such as stearin, palmitin, and linolein, formed from the alcohol glycerol and fatty acids. Naturally occurring esters of organic acids in fruits and flowers give them their distinctive odors. Esters perform important functions in the animal body; e.g., the ester acetylcholine is a chemical transmitter of nerve stimuli.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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