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Elements in various combinations comprise all matter, including living things. Some of the most abundant elements in living organisms include carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus. These form the nucleic acids, proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids that are the fundamental components of living matter. Biologists must understand these important building blocks and the unique structures of the atoms that make up molecules, allowing for the formation of cells, tissues, organ systems, and entire organisms.
- 2.1: Prelude to The Chemical Foundation of Life
- All biological processes follow the laws of physics and chemistry, so in order to understand how biological systems work, it is important to understand the underlying physics and chemistry. For example, the flow of blood within the circulatory system follows the laws of physics that regulate the modes of fluid flow. The breakdown of the large, complex molecules of food into smaller molecules is a series of chemical reactions that follow chemical laws.
- 2.2: Atoms, Isotopes, Ions, and Molecules - The Building Blocks
- At its most fundamental level, life is made up of matter. Matter is any substance that occupies space and has mass. Elements are unique forms of matter with specific chemical and physical properties that cannot be broken down into smaller substances by ordinary chemical reactions. There are 118 elements, but only 92 occur naturally. The remaining elements are synthesized in laboratories and are unstable.
- 2.3: Water
- The polarity of the water molecule and its resulting hydrogen bonding make water a unique substance with special properties that are intimately tied to the processes of life. Life originally evolved in a watery environment, and most of an organism’s cellular chemistry and metabolism occur inside the watery contents of the cell’s cytoplasm. Understanding the characteristics of water helps to elucidate its importance in maintaining life.
- 2.4: Carbon
- Cells are made of many complex molecules called macromolecules, such as proteins, nucleic acids (RNA and DNA), carbohydrates, and lipids. The macromolecules are a subset of organic molecules (any carbon-containing liquid, solid, or gas) that are especially important for life. The fundamental component for all of these macromolecules is carbon.