From the mightiest blue whale to the many miniscule paramecium, life as we recognize it take away dramatically different forms. Nonetheless, all organisms are developed from the same six essential elemental ingredients: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and also sulfur (CHNOPS).

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Why those elements? To find out, Life"s tiny Mysteries consulted Matthew Pasek, a biogeochemist at the college of southern Florida.

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

But what describes the other 5 chemical ingredient of life? "One point that makes nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen good is that they"re abundant," Pasek said. "They likewise exhibit acid-base effects, which enables them to bond v carbon to do amino acids, fats, lipids and also the nucleobases from which DNA and RNA space built."


"Sulfur gives electron shuffle," Pasek continued. "Basically, v their surplus of electrons, sulfides and sulfates aid catalyze reactions. Some organisms usage selenium in place of sulfur in your enzymes, however not many."


Last however not least, phosphorus, usually discovered in the molecule phosphate, is vital to metabolism, since polyphosphate molecule such together ATP (adenosine triphosphate) are able to save a vast amount of energy in their chemical bonds. Breaking the shortcut releases that energy; carry out this enough times in, say, a group of muscle cells, and you can move your arm.

Late last year, NASA scientists discovered the just known exemption to the phosphorus necessity in one arsenic-rich California lake. They found a strain of microbes may be to instead of arsenic atoms because that phosphorus in their molecules when supplies the phosphorus are low. Arsenic is chemically similar to phosphorus, making that poisonous to many life forms since it disrupts metabolic pathways.

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


That"s true, at least, ~ above Earth. For the important molecular frameworks to form, a planet need to be simply the right distance native its sunlight it can"t be too warm or also cold for fluid water to exist. Having an numerous supply of water likewise helps, due to the fact that it provides it much easier for the ingredients to move around and also bump into each various other to kind interesting compounds. Gravity have to be just right, too. Finally, a dash of lightning can carry out the much-needed energy to catalyze a reaction that will at some point lead to the production of the complicated 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 science from 2010 come 2012. She host a bachelor"s level in physics indigenous Tufts University and also has studied physics at the university of California, Berkeley. Monitor Natalie ~ above Google+.