From the mightiest blue whale come the many miniscule paramecium, life together we know it takes dramatically various forms. Nonetheless, every organisms are developed from the exact same six necessary elemental ingredients: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and also sulfur (CHNOPS).

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Why those elements? To discover out, Life"s tiny Mysteries consulted Matthew Pasek, a biogeochemist in ~ the university of southern Florida.

"First off, carbon enters easily into binding with various other carbon atoms. This method it forms substantial chains that act together a quite skeleton for various other atoms to bond to," Pasek said. In various other words, carbon atoms space the perfect structure blocks for huge organic molecules. "This lends chin to complexity."

But what describes the other five chemical ingredients of life? "One point that renders nitrogen, hydrogen and also oxygen good is the they"re abundant," Pasek said. "They additionally exhibit acid-base effects, which enables them to bond through carbon to make amino acids, fats, lipids and the nucleobases native which DNA and also RNA space built."


"Sulfur provides electron shuffle," Pasek continued. "Basically, with their surplus of electrons, sulfides and also sulfates aid catalyze reactions. Part organisms usage selenium in location of sulfur in their enzymes, but not many."


Last but not least, phosphorus, usually uncovered in the molecule phosphate, is crucial to metabolism, because polyphosphate molecule such together ATP (adenosine triphosphate) room able to keep a large amount of energy in their chemical bonds. Breaking the link releases its energy; carry out this enough times in, say, a group of muscle cells, and you deserve to move her arm.

Late last year, NASA scientists found the just known exception to the phosphorus requirement in an arsenic-rich California lake. They found a stress, overload of microbes maybe to instead of arsenic atoms for phosphorus in your molecules when supplies the phosphorus room low. Arsenic is chemically comparable to phosphorus, making it poisonous to many life forms because it disrupts metabolic pathways.

In summary, "With a few exceptions, what you need for life is CHNOPS, to add a dash that 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 happen naturally. Amino acids take place spontaneously, as execute sugars and lipids and also nucleobases."


That"s true, in ~ least, on Earth. Because that the important molecular frameworks to form, a planet must be simply the appropriate distance native its sunlight it can"t be too warm or too cold for fluid water come exist. Having actually an abundant supply the water also helps, because it renders it much easier for the ingredients to move around and bump into each other to kind interesting compounds. Gravity need to be simply right, too. Finally, a dash that lightning can administer the much-needed energy to catalyze a reaction that will ultimately lead come the manufacturing of the facility moleculesamino acids, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, RNA and DNAthat lend themselves to creating life. At least as we know it.

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Natalie Wolchover to be a employee writer because that Live scientific research from 2010 to 2012. She host a bachelor"s degree in physics indigenous Tufts University and has learned physics at the university of California, Berkeley. Follow Natalie top top Google+.