The Foundational Elements of Life

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  • 0:03 Essential Elements of Life
  • 1:02 Cellular Molecules
  • 2:36 Macrominerals
  • 3:41 Trace Elements
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Living things are complex products of their environments. They are made of a number of different natural elements, many of which are essential to survival. Because of this, they are considered foundational elements and they support life on Earth as we know it.

Essential Elements of Life

Ever heard the phrase 'you are what you eat?' That's actually a very true statement! When you look in the mirror, you see a whole person looking back at you. But if you were able to zoom in really, really, really close, you'd see that, in fact, we're just a bunch of atoms stuck together. And these atoms come from our environment - we breathe them in and eat them for our body to use in a variety of ways.

We eat and breathe because our body requires an almost constant supply of new molecules, which are used to drive your bodily processes and keep you alive. Believe it or not, within about seven years your body has replaced all of its molecules with new ones. So when you look in the mirror today, you are actually looking at a different you than seven years ago!

There are several elements that are essential to life. Some of these have similar roles, while others have very unique roles. Regardless, your body needs them in order to remain happy and healthy, so let's take a look at what these foundational elements are.

Cellular Molecules

Quite possibly the most important element to life is carbon. Carbon is essential to all living things, and almost all of the molecules that are made by cells are carbon-containing compounds. Carbon can build very large, complex molecules that build cellular structures and carry out cellular processes. Because of this important function, carbon is considered the chemical building block of life.

Oxygen is something else you certainly don't want to go without. You can't survive for more than a few minutes without oxygen because cells need a steady supply of oxygen in order to perform cellular respiration. This process produces an essential molecule called ATP. Without ATP, you wouldn't survive very long so your body takes in oxygen without you even thinking about it to keep that process going.

Hydrogen is an essential part of many compounds. Hydrogen forms unique bonds that help hold things like water molecules and DNA together. Hydrogen is also an important component of molecules like proteins, carbohydrates and lipids - all of which you need to consume and build in your body for energy and nutrition.

Nitrogen has a key role something really special...DNA! DNA is made of nitrogenous bases that form strands of nucleotides. These nucleotide strands are held together with none other than our awesome hydrogen bonds, and the strands are what make you, you! Nitrogen is also a vital part of proteins, which help organisms' bodies repair and build new tissues.


In addition to these four major elements, your body also requires minerals, which are inorganic ionic compounds that play a role in bodily health. Some of these are called macrominerals, because these are the minerals that we need in large quantities. In fact, they make up about four percent of your body weight - so you can imagine how important these are!

Phosphorous forms macromineral compounds that are important to bone and tooth formation, as well as nucleotide synthesis. Phosphorous also forms the 'backbone' of DNA and is an integral part of ATP - that helpful molecule that provides energy for you to do cool things like move your muscles.

Sulfur forms important macromineral compounds that help catalyze reactions. Sulfur is also a part of DNA (notice a pattern yet?) and plays a role in forming bodily structures like hair, skin, nails and cartilage.

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