From the mightiest blue whale come the most miniscule paramecium, life together we recognize it take away dramatically different forms. Nonetheless, all organisms are constructed from the same six necessary elemental ingredients: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur (CHNOPS).

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Why those elements? To uncover out, Life"s little Mysteries consulted Matthew Pasek, a biogeochemist at the university of southern Florida.

"First off, carbon enters easily into bond with other carbon atoms. This method it forms vast chains the act together a pretty skeleton for other atoms to bond to," Pasek said. In other words, carbon atoms space the perfect building blocks for huge organic molecules. "This lends itself to complexity."

But what defines the other five chemical ingredients of life? "One thing that provides nitrogen, hydrogen and also oxygen great is the they"re abundant," Pasek said. "They likewise exhibit acid-base effects, which allows them to bond with carbon to make amino acids, fats, lipids and also the nucleobases indigenous which DNA and also RNA room built."


"Sulfur offers electron shuffle," Pasek continued. "Basically, through their excess of electrons, sulfides and also sulfates aid catalyze reactions. Some organisms usage selenium in location of sulfur in their enzymes, but not many."


Last but not least, phosphorus, usually found in the molecule phosphate, is an important to metabolism, due to the fact that polyphosphate molecules such together ATP (adenosine triphosphate) room able to keep a huge amount of power in their chemical bonds. Breaking the bond releases the energy; execute this enough times in, say, a team of muscle cells, and you can move your arm.

Late last year, NASA scientists uncovered the just known exception to the phosphorus requirement in one arsenic-rich California lake. They found a stress, overload of microbes may be to substitute arsenic atoms because that phosphorus in their molecules when supplies that phosphorus are low. Arsenic is chemically comparable to phosphorus, making that poisonous to most life forms since it disrupts metabolic pathways.

In summary, "With a couple of exceptions, what you require for life is CHNOPS, plus a dash of salt and a couple of metals," Pasek said. "Of course, those ingredient do need to be in the correct bonding structure, however this appears to occur naturally. Amino acids happen spontaneously, as do sugars and also lipids and nucleobases."


That"s true, at least, top top Earth. For the essential molecular frameworks to form, a planet should be simply the right distance from its sun it can"t be too warm or also cold for liquid water come exist. Having an abundant supply of water also helps, due to the fact that it renders it simpler for the ingredients to move around and bump into each other to kind interesting compounds. Gravity must be simply right, too. Finally, a dash of lightning can carry out the much-needed energy to catalyze a reaction that will eventually lead come the manufacturing of the facility moleculesamino acids, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, RNA and DNAthat lend themselves to developing life. At the very least as we understand it.

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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer because that Live scientific research from 2010 come 2012. She hold a bachelor"s level in physics from Tufts University and also has studied physics at the college of California, Berkeley. Monitor Natalie top top Google+.