2.1 Atoms, Isotopes, Ions, and Molecules: The Building Blocks

Matter is anything that occupies space and has mass. It is made up of elements. All of the 98 elements that occur naturally have unique qualities that allow them to combine in various ways to create molecules, which in turn combine to form cells, tissues, organ systems, and organisms. Atoms, which consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons, are the smallest units of an element that retain all of the properties of that element. Electrons can be transferred, shared, or cause charge disparities between atoms to create bonds, including ionic, covalent, and hydrogen bonds, as well as van der Waals interactions.

2.2  Water

Water has many properties that are critical to maintaining life. It is a polar molecule, allowing for the formation of hydrogen bonds. Hydrogen bonds allow ions and other polar molecules to dissolve in water. Therefore, water is an excellent solvent. The hydrogen bonds between water molecules cause the water to have a high heat capacity, meaning it takes a lot of added heat to raise its temperature. As the temperature rises, the hydrogen bonds between water continually break and form anew. This allows for the overall temperature to remain stable, although energy is added to the system. Water also exhibits a high heat of vaporization, which is key to how organisms cool themselves by the evaporation of sweat. Water’s cohesive forces allow for the property of surface tension, whereas its adhesive properties are seen as water rises inside capillary tubes. The pH value is a measure of hydrogen ion concentration in a solution and is one of many chemical characteristics that is highly regulated in living organisms through homeostasis. Acids and bases can change pH values, but buffers tend to moderate the changes they cause. These properties of water are intimately connected to the biochemical and physical processes performed by living organisms, and life would be very different if these properties were altered, if it could exist at all.

2.3  Carbon

The unique properties of carbon make it a central part of biological molecules. Carbon binds to oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen covalently to form the many molecules important for cellular function. Carbon has four electrons in its outermost shell and can form four bonds. Carbon and hydrogen can form hydrocarbon chains or rings. Functional groups are groups of atoms that confer specific properties to hydrocarbon (or substituted hydrocarbon) chains or rings that define their overall chemical characteristics and function.