ligand (lĭgˈənd) [key], charged or uncharged molecule with one or more unshared pairs of electrons that can attach to a central metallic atom or ion to form an aggregate known as a complex ion (see chemical bond). Some ligands that share electrons with metals form very stable complexes. Some common bases that act as ligands are water and ammonia molecules and halide, hydroxide, acetate, cyanide, thiocyanate, and nitrite anions. These ligands are monofunctional, i.e., they are attached by one unshared pair of electrons during complexing. Polyfunctional ligands, which bind to the metal ion with two or more pairs of electrons, are called chelates (see chelating agents). Ethylenediamine-tetraacetate, a commonly used chelating compound, has six pairs of electrons to bind to metal ions. Electron-donating functional groups containing nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, phosphorous, or carbon may act as ligands in complex biological systems. For example, in enzymes that need complexed metal ions to function, mercapto (sulfur-containing) groups and amino (nitrogen-containing) groups act as chelating agents; these groups fix the metal ion in a specific position. Other biologically important molecules, such as chlorophyll, vitamin B12, and heme, also have nitrogen-containing groups that donate electrons and have a chelating function.
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