Life and Chemistry Small Molecules

Mars today is a cold, dry place, not suitable for life as we know it. But 3 billion years ago, it was warmer and wetter. An orbiting probe from Earth recently photographed a huge dry lake bed, the size of New Mexico and Texas combined, on the Martian surface. Another probe found evidence of water trapped just below the icy surface of the Martian polar region. These discoveries by geologists have sparked the interest of biologists, for where there is water, there can be life. There is good reason to believe that life as we know it cannot exist without water.

Animals and plants that live on Earth's land masses had to evolve elaborate ways to retain the water that makes up about 70 percent of their bodies. Aquatic organisms living in water do not need these water-retention mechanisms; thus biologists have concluded that the first living things originated in a watery environment. This environment need not have been the lakes, rivers, and oceans with which we are familiar. Living organisms have been found in hot springs at temperatures above the usual boiling point of water, in a lake beneath the frozen Antarctic ice, in water trapped 2 miles below Earth's surface, in water 3 miles below the surface of the sea, in extremely acid and extremely salty water, and even in the water that cools the interiors of nuclear reactors.

With 20 trillion galaxies in the universe, each with 100 billion stars, there are many planets out there, and if our own solar system is typical, some of them have the water needed for life. As biologists contemplate how life could originate from nonliving matter, their attention focuses not just on the presence of water, but on what is dissolved in it.

A major discovery of biology is that living things are composed of the same types of chemical elements as the vast nonliving portion of the universe. This mechanistic view— that life is chemically based and obeys universal physicochemical laws—is a relatively recent one in human history. The concept of a "vital force" responsible for life, different from the forces found in physics and chemistry, was common in Western culture until the nineteenth century, and many people still assume such a force exists. However, most scientists adhere to a mechanistic view of life, and it is the cornerstone of medicine and agriculture.

A Grander Canyon on Mars This false color image from the Mars Global Surveyor shows in blue the dry remains of what was once a huge lake on Mars. Just as the Colorado River carved Earth's Grand Canyon, torrents of water from the lake probably carved the mile-deep canyon that is visible as a thin blue linejust north of the lake bed.

Before describing how chemical elements are arranged in living creatures, we will examine some fundamental chemical concepts. We will first address the constituents of matter: atoms. We will examine their variety, their properties, and their capacity to combine with other atoms. Then we will consider how matter changes. In addition to changes in state (solid to liquid to gas), substances undergo changes that transform both their composition and their characteristic properties. Then we will describe the structure and properties of water and its relationship to acids and bases. We will close the chapter with a consideration of characteristic groups of atoms that contribute specific properties to larger molecules of which they are part, and which will be the subject of Chapter 3.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Essentials of Human Physiology

Essentials of Human Physiology

This ebook provides an introductory explanation of the workings of the human body, with an effort to draw connections between the body systems and explain their interdependencies. A framework for the book is homeostasis and how the body maintains balance within each system. This is intended as a first introduction to physiology for a college-level course.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment