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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.
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.
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.
Your mother told you to drink your milk because it has a lot of calcium. This element forms macromineral ionic compounds that help make strong bones and teeth and support nerve and muscle function.
Other foundational elements are essential but only in small quantities, known as trace elements. These elements make up far less of your body weight than things like macrominerals: only about 0.01%. However, just because we need small amounts of them doesn't mean they're not important. These small amounts make big differences when you don't take in what you need.
Trace elements include things like iron, iodine, copper and zinc. Because they are so important, but we need so little of them, these are often added to food and water in developed countries.
Take iodine for example. This is an essential ingredient of a hormone produced by the thyroid gland. You only need about 0.15 milligrams of iodine a day, but without it your thyroid gland, which is found in your neck, gets very upset and grows to an abnormally large size. Iodine deficiency is also linked to mental retardation. You may notice that your table salt is iodized, which is done to help people ingest the small amount of this element needed each day.
Other trace elements are now added to things like cereal, toothpaste and water to help us be as healthy as we can. In fact, if you crush up your fortified cereal and then stir it with a magnet, you can pull out the iron that has been added for your benefit and see it for yourself!
Our bodies may look like one solid unit, but really we're just a hodge-podge mixture of all sorts of elements. Many of these are essential to our survival because they provide structure, support, energy and other benefits to our health.
Our cells, genetic material, proteins, tissues and bones all depend on a delicate balance of these elements. Some we need in large amounts, while others are only needed in trace amounts. Large or small, living things require these elements, which provide the basic foundations of life as we know it.
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Back To CourseFundamental Biology
36 chapters | 334 lessons