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Q & A: building blocks of life

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Most recent answer: 02/26/2013
Q:
From my understanding, all matter is made of the fundamental elements found on the periodic table and in return those elements are made of different charged quarks. Obviously there are things in the universe that aren't made of elements(eg. lightening), but my question is what combination makes life? Again, obviously there are different types of life, but what is a requirement of all life- NOT functions, but "materials"? I apologize for the confusing wording, I would be happy to clarify if you have any questions. Thanks.
- Sam Niziolek (age 14)
Baltimore
A:
We only know what elements happen to be incorporated on life here. Obviously carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen play fundamental roles. In addition many other elements get used for special purposes-sodium, potassium, chlorine, manganese, magnesium, iron, zinc, calcium,  copper and so forth. Even molybdenum gets used. Unless we find independently started life somewhere else or make tremendous progress in artificial life, we can't really tell which of these ingredients were really necessary and which just got used opportunistically because they were there.

It is hard to see anything remotely like what we call life being able to develop without some sort of complex chemistry. That requires a few elements heavier than helium. The initial Big Bang soup, which only went up to lithium, seems clearly inadequate. Some of the elements made later in stars seem to be necessary.

Mike W.

(published on 02/26/2013)

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