A theoretical study of the Michael-type addition of 1,3-dicarbonyl compounds to α,β-unsaturated carbonyl compounds has been performed in the gas phase by means of the AM1 semiempirical method and by density functional theory (DFT) calculations within the B3LYP and M06-2X hybrid functionals. A molecular model has been selected to mimic the role of a base, which is traditionally used as a catalyst in Michael reactions, an acetate moiety to modulate its basicity, and point charges to imitate the stabilization of the negative charge developed in the substrate during the reaction when taking place in enzymatic environments. Results of the study of six different reactions obtained at the three different levels of calculations show that the reaction takes place in three steps: in the first step the α proton of the acetylacetone is abstracted by the base, then the nucleophilic attack on the β-carbon of the α,β-unsaturated carbonyl compound takes place generating the negatively charged enolate intermediate, and finally the product is formed through a proton transfer back from the protonated base. According to the energy profiles, the rate limiting step corresponds to the abstraction of the proton or the carbon–carbon bond formation step, depending on substituents of the substrates and method of calculation. The effect of the substituents on the acidity of the α proton of the acetylacetone and the steric hindrance can be analyzed by comparing these two separated steps. Moreover, the result of adding a positive charge close to the center that develops a negative charge during the reaction confirms the catalytic role of the oxyanion hole proposed in enzyme catalysed Michael-type additions. Stabilization of the intermediate implies, in agreement with the Hammond postulate, a reduction of the barrier of the carbon–carbon bond formation step. Our results can be used to predict the features that a new designed biocatalyst must present to efficiently accelerate this fundamental reaction in organic synthesis.
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