An interesting little discussion on the meaning of “protobranching” appears in a comment1 and reply2 in J. Phys. Chem. A. Fishtik1 calls out the concept of protobranching on three counts:

  1. It is inconsistent to count a single protobranch for propane, but then not have three protobranches in cyclopropane
  2. It is inappropriate to utilize methane as a reference species.
  3. Group additivities work well.

I tend to side more with Schleyer2 in his rebuttal of these charges, and so will present from this perspective. First off, Schleyer argues that he can define protobranch anyway he wants! (He in fact cites a quote of Humpty Dumpty from Lewis Carroll to support this stance!) Schleyer is of course correct. Fishtik should really have argued “Does Schleyer’s definition of protobranch add to our understanding of strain?” So Fishtik claims that there is an internal inconsistency in Schleyer’s definition – taking the view point that the C-(C)2(H)2 group is identical to the protobranch. Schleyer counters that no, the protobranch is this group along with the caveat that the two terminal carbons are not connected, like they are in cyclopropane. I really prefer Gronert’s approach here – where he argues for just what are the implications of Schleyer’s definition (see this post).

Fishtik refuses to use methane as a reference since it is a unique molecule. Again, if one takes the group-centric view, then methane possesses a group that no other compound has. But Schleyer counters that one is free to choose whatever reference one thinks is appropriate, just be sure to understand what properties are conserved or not conserved when using that reference selection. To me, this is really the key for the entire discussion: choose one’s references in such a way as to minimize differences between your reference compound(s) and the molecule(s) you are trying to explore to just the property of interest. So, if one is interested in quantifying ring strain, the reference compounds should be not only be strain-free but they should differ in no other way from the cyclic molecule other than the presence of the ring! Unfortunately, there is no unique or non-arbitrary way to do this! Schleyer’s approach and Fishtik’s approach differ in just what properties they believe are important to conserve and which properties they are going to lump into the concept “ring strain”.

Fishtik shows a whole slew of reactions that demonstrate the consistency of group additivity methods. Schleyer correctly points out that these examples are really intimately related and represent only one type of definition. Again, there is really no unique set of references, and many, many different models have been developed, all of which can match experimental data quite well – like for example heats of formation. The key is what these models say in terms of interpreting, say, these heats of formation. Can one rationalize trends and make predictions with the model? If so, then it has utility. If not, then the model should be discarded. Ultimately, Fishtik’s argument is that the protobranching model does not assist us in understanding strain – Schleyer would obviously beg to differ!


(1) Fishtik, I., "Comment on "The Concept of Protobranching and Its Many Paradigm Shifting Implications for Energy Evaluations"," J. Phys. Chem. A, 2010, ASAP, DOI: 10.1021/jp908894q

(2) Schleyer, P. v. R.; McKee, W. C., "Reply to the "Comment on ‘The Concept of Protobranching and Its Many Paradigm Shifting Implications for Energy Evaluations’"," J. Phys. Chem. A, 2010, ASAP, DOI: 10.1021/jp909910f