Six Elements Common to Biological Organisms

Six Elements Common to Biological Organisms
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  • 0:01 The Same Stuff
  • 0:56 CHNOPS
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Meredith Mikell
All living things have six key elements in common. Here, we'll examine those six elements, describe their properties and find out why they're crucial to life.

The Same Stuff

From the tiniest bacteria, to the tallest trees, to fungi growing on those trees, to every human, to the largest whales, all living things are made of the same materials. These materials can be reduced down to individual elements, different types of atoms that make up the most simple unit of chemistry, which then comprise molecules when combined with other elements. The elements that living things are made of make up a surprisingly small portion of the periodic table. While approximately 25 elements can be found in any one of these organisms, only six of those are universal in all of them and in all life on Earth. Only six! That goes to show us that different combinations of those six elements make all the difference in the vast diversity of cells, tissues, organs, and organisms.

CHNOPS

The six common elements in all living things are carbon (C), hydrogen (H), nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), phosphorus (P), and sulfur (S), often abbreviated as CHNOPS. The number of protons an element has is what distinguishes it from other elements. Carbon is carbon because it has six protons; hydrogen is hydrogen because it has one proton, and so on. These six elements are very good at constructing large, complex biomolecules, the molecules involved in life. They can make up organic molecules, which are comprised at least of carbon and hydrogen, and inorganic molecules, which lack carbon.

Carbon is the sixth element on the periodic table and can form strong covalent bonds in which electrons are shared between atoms, with as many as four other atoms at the same time. This explains why many different possible molecules can be made from carbon and why the study of organic chemistry is about these many combinations. With respect to living things, carbon, in conjunction with the other five common elements, makes up carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids. From simple molecules like methane to long hydrocarbons that comprise fossil fuels, carbon's versatility puts it at the crux of all life as we know it.

The first element on the periodic table, hydrogen, is a relatively simple element with the ability to form only one bond at a time with very negatively-charged atoms. These hydrogen bonds are crucial to life because they form water (H2O) when two hydrogens bond with one oxygen. We know that water is the molecular basis of all living things. Hydrogen is also found attached to carbons, making long hydrocarbon chains that make up carbohydrates and lipids, as well as to nitrogen and other common elements in nucleic acids and proteins.

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