An organic compound is virtually any chemical compound that contains carbon, although a consensus definition remains elusive and likely arbitrary. Organic compounds are rare terrestrially, but of importance because all known life is based on organic compounds. The most basic petrochemicals are considered the building blocks of organic chemistry, for historical reasons discussed below, a few types of carbon-containing compounds, such as carbides, carbonates, simple oxides of carbon, and cyanides are considered inorganic. The distinction between organic and inorganic compounds, while useful in organizing the vast subject of chemistry. Organic chemistry is the science concerned with all aspects of organic compounds, Organic synthesis is the methodology of their preparation. The word organic is historical, dating to the 1st century, for many centuries, Western alchemists believed in vitalism. This is the theory that certain compounds could be synthesized only from their classical elements—earth, water, air, vitalism taught that these organic compounds were fundamentally different from the inorganic compounds that could be obtained from the elements by chemical manipulation. Vitalism survived for a while even after the rise of modern atomic theory and it first came under question in 1824, when Friedrich Wöhler synthesized oxalic acid, a compound known to occur only in living organisms, from cyanogen. A more decisive experiment was Wöhlers 1828 synthesis of urea from the inorganic salts potassium cyanate, urea had long been considered an organic compound, as it was known to occur only in the urine of living organisms. Wöhlers experiments were followed by others, in which increasingly complex organic substances were produced from inorganic ones without the involvement of any living organism. Even though vitalism has been discredited, scientific nomenclature retains the distinction between organic and inorganic compounds, still, even the broadest definition requires excluding alloys that contain carbon, including steel. The C-H definition excludes compounds that are considered organic, neither urea nor oxalic acid is organic by this definition, yet they were two key compounds in the vitalism debate. The IUPAC Blue Book on organic nomenclature specifically mentions urea and oxalic acid, other compounds lacking C-H bonds but traditionally considered organic include benzenehexol, mesoxalic acid, and carbon tetrachloride. Mellitic acid, which contains no C-H bonds, is considered an organic substance in Martian soil. The C-H bond-only rule also leads to somewhat arbitrary divisions in sets of carbon-fluorine compounds, for example, CF4 would be considered by this rule to be inorganic, whereas CF3H would be organic. Organic compounds may be classified in a variety of ways, one major distinction is between natural and synthetic compounds. Another distinction, based on the size of organic compounds, distinguishes between small molecules and polymers, natural compounds refer to those that are produced by plants or animals. Many of these are extracted from natural sources because they would be more expensive to produce artificially
The <small>L</small>-isoleucine molecule, C6H13NO2, showing features typical of organic compounds. Carbon atoms are in black, hydrogens gray, oxygens red, and nitrogen blue.
Methane, CH4; it is one of the simplest organic compounds.