Indole is a solid at room temperature. Indole can be produced by bacteria as a degradation product of the amino acid tryptophan. It occurs naturally in human feces and has an intense fecal odor. At very low concentrations, however, it has a flowery smell, and is a constituent of many flower scents (such as orange blossoms) and perfumes. It also occurs in coal tar.
Indole undergoes electrophilic substitution, mainly at position 3. Substituted indoles are structural elements of (and for some compounds the synthetic precursors for) the tryptophan-derived tryptamine alkaloids like the neurotransmitter serotonin, and melatonin. Other indolic compounds include the plant hormone Auxin (indolyl-3-acetic acid, IAA), the anti-inflammatory drug indomethacin, and the betablocker pindolol.
Indole chemistry began to develop with the study of the dye indigo. This was converted to isatin and then to oxindole. Then, in 1866, Adolf von Baeyer reduced oxindole to indole using zinc dust. In 1869, he proposed the formula for indole (left) that is accepted today.
Certain indole derivatives were important dyestuffs until the end of the 19th century. In the 1930s, interest in indole intensified when it became known that the indole nucleus is present in many important alkaloids, as well is in tryptophan and auxins, and it remains an active area of research today.
Although the indole N-1 nitrogen atom has a lone pair of electrons, indole is not basic like amines and anilines because the lone pair is delocalised and contributes to the aromatic system. The protonated form has an pKa of -3.6, so that very strong acids like hydrochloric acid are needed to protonate a substantial amount of indole. The sensitivity of many indolic compounds (e.g., tryptamines) under acidic conditions is caused by this protonation.
The most reactive position on indole for electrophilic aromatic substitution is C-3, which is 1013 times more reactive than benzene. For example, Vilsmeier-Haack formylation of indole will take place at room temperature exclusively at C-3. Since the pyrrollic ring is the most reactive portion of indole, nucleophilic substitution of the carbocyclic (benzene) ring can take place only after N-1, C-2, and C-3 are substituted.
The N-H proton has a pKa of 21 in DMSO, so that very strong bases like sodium hydride or butyl lithium and water-free conditions are needed for complete deprotonation. Salts of the resulting indole anion can react in two ways. Highly-ionic salts such as the sodium or potassium compounds tend to react with electrophiles at nitrogen-1, whereas the more covalent magnesium compounds (indole Grignard reagents) and (especially) zinc complexes tend to react at carbon-3 (see figure below). For the same reason, polar aprotic solvents such as DMF and DMSO tend to favour attack at the nitrogen, whereas nonpolar solvents such as toluene favour C-3 attack.
After the N-H proton, the hydrogen at C-2 is the next most acidic proton on indole. Reaction of N-protected indoles with butyl lithium or lithium diisopropylamide results in lithiation exclusively at the C-2 position. This strong nucleophile can then be used as such with other electrophiles.
Bergman and Venemalm developed a technique for lithiating the 2-position of unsubstituted indole.
Only the C-2 to C-3 pi-bond of indole is capable of cycloaddition reactions. Intermolecular cycloadditions are not favorable, whereas intramolecular variants are often high-yielding. For example, Padwa et al. have developed this Diels-Alder reaction to form advanced strychnine intermediates. In this case, the 2-aminofuran is the diene, whereas the indole is the dienophile.
Indoles also undergo intramolecular [2+3] and [2+2] cycloadditions.
Natural jasmine oil, used in the perfume industry, contains around 2.5% of indole. Since 1 kilogram of the natural oil requires processing several million jasmine blossoms and costs around $10,000, indole (among other things) is used in the manufacture of synthetic jasmine oil (which costs around $10/kg).