The Six Elements Found in Organisms

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  • 0:03 CHNOPS
  • 0:55 Carbon
  • 1:24 Hydrogen, Nitrogen, And Oxygen
  • 1:50 Phosphorus
  • 2:14 Sulfur
  • 2:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

There are six elements that are commonly found in life on Earth. This lesson will tell you what these elements are and discuss what role they play in forming biomolecules.


CHNOPS. It sounds like the name of a robot from a science fiction movie or the sound you make when you bite into something crunchy. Or maybe it makes you think of doing chin-ups. No matter what pops into your mind when you see this acronym, you should know that your life depends on it! This is because life as we know it on Earth would not exist without the CHNOPS elements.

The chemical abbreviations for the six most common elements of life make up the acronym CHNOPS. These elements are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. The CHNOPS elements come together and interact to form biomolecules. Biomolecules are any molecules present in a living organism. They make up all lifeforms on Earth. Other elements can be found in biomolecules, but these six are by far the most common.

The CHNOPS elements - the six most common elements in living organisms.


The phrase 'carbon-based lifeform' may ring a bell. All known lifeforms are carbon-based. This is because the biomolecules that make up living cells contain large amounts of carbon. The carbon acts as a framework for other elements to bond with, and it enters into these bonds easily. Imagine a building being erected. A support beam must exist before walls or roofs can be attached. In biomolecules, carbon provides the structural support.

Hydrogen, Nitrogen, and Oxygen

There are two main reasons hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen are commonly found in life forms. The first reason is that these elements are abundantly found in nature. The second reason is that hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen bond easily with the carbon framework of biomolecules. This ease of access and compatibility creates many of the basic components of life, including the building blocks of DNA.


Phosphorus helps drive the metabolic processes of life. In other words, phosphorus helps organisms turn food into energy. The biomolecules formed by phosphorus are able to store large amounts of energy. When the chemical bond of a phosphorus biomolecule is broken, this energy is released. A plant may use the energy to produce fruit, or you might use the energy to move your leg.

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