Also Known As: Urea, Urine
Urea serves an important role in the metabolism of nitrogen-containing compounds by animals and is the main nitrogen-containing substance in the urine of mammals. It is solid, colourless, and odorless (although the ammonia that it gives off in the presence of water, including water vapor in the air, has a strong odor). It is highly soluble in water and non-toxic. Dissolved in water, it is neither acidic nor alkaline. The body uses it in many processes, the most notable one being nitrogen excretion. Urea is widely used in fertilizers as a convenient source of nitrogen. Urea is also an important raw material for the chemical industry. The synthesis of this organic compound by Friedrich WÃ¶hler in 1828 from an inorganic precursor was an important milestone in the development of organic chemistry, as it showed for the first time that a molecule found in living organisms could be synthesized in the lab without biological starting materials (thus contradicting a theory widely prevalent at one time, called vitalism).
The terms urea and carbamide are also used for a class of chemical compounds sharing the same functional group RR'Nâ€”COâ€”NRR', namely a carbonyl group attached to two organic amine residues. Examples include carbamide peroxide, allantoin, and hydantoin. Ureas are closely related to biurets and related in structure to amides, carbamates, carbodiimides, and thiocarbamides.
The handling of urea by the kidneys is a vital part of human metabolism. Besides its role as carrier of waste nitrogen, urea also plays a role in the countercurrent exchange system of the nephrons, that allows for re-absorption of water and critical ions from the excreted urine. Urea is reabsorbed in the inner medullary collecting ducts of the nephrons, thus raising the osmolarity in the medullary interstitium surrounding the thin ascending limb of the loop of Henle, which in turn causes water to be reabsorbed. By action of the urea transporter 2, some of this reabsorbed urea will eventually flow back into the thin ascending limb of the tubule, through the collecting ducts, and into the excreted urine.
This mechanism, which is controlled by the antidiuretic hormone, allows the body to create hyperosmotic urine, that has a higher concentration of dissolved substances than the blood plasma. This mechanism is important to prevent the loss of water, to maintain blood pressure, and to maintain a suitable concentration of sodium ions in the blood plasmas.
The equivalent nitrogen content (in gram) of urea (in mmol) can be estimated by the conversion factor 0.028 g/mmol. Furthermore, 1 gram of nitrogen is roughly equivalent to 6 grams of protein, and 1 gram of protein is roughly equivalent to 4 grams of muscle tissue. In situations such as muscle wasting, 1 mmol of excessive urea in the urine (as measured by urine volume in litres multiplied by urea concentration in mmol/l) roughly corresponds to a muscle loss of 0.67 gram.