From the mightiest blue whale come the many miniscule paramecium, life together we know it take away dramatically different forms. Nonetheless, all organisms are developed from the same six crucial elemental ingredients: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and also sulfur (CHNOPS).

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Why those elements? To find out, Life"s small Mysteries consulted Matthew Pasek, a biogeochemist at the college of south Florida.

"First off, carbon enters conveniently into binding with other carbon atoms. This method it forms huge chains that act together a nice skeleton for other atoms to bond to," Pasek said. In other words, carbon atoms space the perfect building blocks for large organic molecules. "This lends itself to complexity."

But what explains the other 5 chemical ingredients of life? "One point that provides nitrogen, hydrogen and also oxygen an excellent is that they"re abundant," Pasek said. "They additionally exhibit acid-base effects, which allows them to bond through carbon to make amino acids, fats, lipids and also the nucleobases native which DNA and also RNA room built."


"Sulfur gives electron shuffle," Pasek continued. "Basically, through their surplus of electrons, sulfides and also sulfates assist catalyze reactions. Some organisms use selenium in place of sulfur in their enzymes, yet not many."


Last but not least, phosphorus, usually uncovered in the molecule phosphate, is vital to metabolism, due to the fact that polyphosphate molecule such together ATP (adenosine triphosphate) space able to save a large amount of energy in your chemical bonds. Breaking the bond releases that is energy; perform this sufficient times in, say, a group of muscle cells, and also you have the right to move your arm.

Late critical year, NASA scientists discovered the only known exemption to the phosphorus need in one arsenic-rich California lake. They found a strain of microbes may be to substitute arsenic atoms for phosphorus in your molecules when supplies of phosphorus are low. Arsenic is chemically similar to phosphorus, making the poisonous to many life forms since it disrupts metabolic pathways.

In summary, "With a couple of exceptions, what you require for life is CHNOPS, add to a dash the salt and also a few metals," Pasek said. "Of course, those ingredient do have to be in the exactly bonding structure, but this seems to take place naturally. Amino acids happen spontaneously, as perform sugars and lipids and nucleobases."


That"s true, in ~ least, top top Earth. For the necessary molecular structures to form, a planet should be simply the ideal distance indigenous its sunlight it can"t be too warm or as well cold for liquid water come exist. Having actually an abundant supply of water additionally helps, because it provides it much easier for the ingredient to move around and also bump into each other to form interesting compounds. Gravity must be simply right, too. Finally, a dash that lightning can provide the much-needed energy to catalyze a reaction that will at some point lead come the production of the complex moleculesamino acids, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, RNA and also DNAthat lend themselves to creating life. At the very least as we understand it.

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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer because that Live scientific research from 2010 come 2012. She organize a bachelor"s degree in physics indigenous Tufts University and also has studied physics at the university of California, Berkeley. Monitor Natalie top top Google+.