2.1 Elements and Atoms: The Building Blocks of Matter
The human body is composed of elements, the most abundant of which are oxygen (O), carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and nitrogen (N). You obtain these elements from the foods you eat and the air you breathe. The smallest unit of an element that retains all of the properties of that element is an atom. But, atoms themselves contain many subatomic particles, the three most important of which are protons, neutrons, and electrons. These particles do not vary in quality from one element to another; rather, what gives an element its distinctive identification is the quantity of its protons, called its atomic number. Protons and neutrons contribute nearly all of an atom’s mass; the number of protons and neutrons is an element’s mass number. Heavier and lighter versions of the same element can occur in nature because these versions have different numbers of neutrons. Different versions of an element are called isotopes.
The tendency of an atom to be stable or to react readily with other atoms is largely due to the behavior of the electrons within the atom’s outermost electron shell, called its valence shell. Helium, as well as larger atoms with eight electrons in their valence shell, is unlikely to participate in chemical reactions because they are stable. All other atoms tend to accept, donate, or share electrons in a process that brings the electrons in their valence shell to eight (or in the case of hydrogen, to two).
2.2 Chemical Bonds
Each moment of life, atoms of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and the other elements of the human body are making and breaking chemical bonds. Ions are charged atoms that form when an atom donates or accepts one or more negatively charged electrons. Cations (ions with a positive charge) are attracted to anions (ions with a negative charge). This attraction is called an ionic bond. In covalent bonds, the participating atoms do not lose or gain electrons, but rather share them. Molecules with nonpolar covalent bonds are electrically balanced, and have a linear three-dimensional shape. Molecules with polar covalent bonds have “poles”—regions of weakly positive and negative charge—and have a triangular three-dimensional shape. An atom of oxygen and two atoms of hydrogen form water molecules by means of polar covalent bonds. Hydrogen bonds link hydrogen atoms already participating in polar covalent bonds to anions or electronegative regions of other polar molecules. Hydrogen bonds link water molecules, resulting in the properties of water that are important to living things.
2.3 Chemical Reactions
Chemical reactions, in which chemical bonds are broken and formed, require an initial investment of energy. Kinetic energy, the energy of matter in motion, fuels the collisions of atoms, ions, and molecules that are necessary if their old bonds are to break and new ones to form. All molecules store potential energy, which is released when their bonds are broken.
Four forms of energy essential to human functioning are: chemical energy, which is stored and released as chemical bonds are formed and broken; mechanical energy, which directly powers physical activity; radiant energy, emitted as waves such as in sunlight; and electrical energy, the power of moving electrons.
Chemical reactions begin with reactants and end with products. Synthesis reactions bond reactants together, a process that requires energy, whereas decomposition reactions break the bonds within a reactant and thereby release energy. In exchange reactions, bonds are both broken and formed, and energy is exchanged.
The rate at which chemical reactions occur is influenced by several properties of the reactants: temperature, concentration and pressure, and the presence or absence of a catalyst. An enzyme is a catalytic protein that speeds up chemical reactions in the human body.
2.4 Inorganic Compounds Essential to Human Functioning
Inorganic compounds essential to human functioning include water, salts, acids, and bases. These compounds are inorganic; that is, they do not contain both hydrogen and carbon. Water is a lubricant and cushion, a heat sink, a component of liquid mixtures, a byproduct of dehydration synthesis reactions, and a reactant in hydrolysis reactions. Salts are compounds that, when dissolved in water, dissociate into ions other than H+ or OH–. In contrast, acids release H+ in solution, making it more acidic. Bases accept H+, thereby making the solution more alkaline (caustic).
The pH of any solution is its relative concentration of H+. A solution with pH 7 is neutral. Solutions with pH below 7 are acids, and solutions with pH above 7 are bases. A change in a single digit on the pH scale (e.g., from 7 to 8) represents a ten-fold increase or decrease in the concentration of H+. In a healthy adult, the pH of blood ranges from 7.35 to 7.45. Homeostatic control mechanisms important for keeping blood in a healthy pH range include chemicals called buffers, weak acids and weak bases released when the pH of blood or other body fluids fluctuates in either direction outside of this normal range.
2.5 Organic Compounds Essential to Human Functioning
Organic compounds essential to human functioning include carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleotides. These compounds are said to be organic because they contain both carbon and hydrogen. Carbon atoms in organic compounds readily share electrons with hydrogen and other atoms, usually oxygen, and sometimes nitrogen. Carbon atoms also may bond with one or more functional groups such as carboxyls, hydroxyls, aminos, or phosphates. Monomers are single units of organic compounds. They bond by dehydration synthesis to form polymers, which can in turn be broken by hydrolysis.
Carbohydrate compounds provide essential body fuel. Their structural forms include monosaccharides such as glucose, disaccharides such as lactose, and polysaccharides, including starches (polymers of glucose), glycogen (the storage form of glucose), and fiber. All body cells can use glucose for fuel. It is converted via an oxidation-reduction reaction to ATP.
Lipids are hydrophobic compounds that provide body fuel and are important components of many biological compounds. Triglycerides are the most abundant lipid in the body, and are composed of a glycerol backbone attached to three fatty acid chains. Phospholipids are compounds composed of a diglyceride with a phosphate group attached at the molecule’s head. The result is a molecule with polar and nonpolar regions. Steroids are lipids formed of four hydrocarbon rings. The most important is cholesterol. Prostaglandins are signaling molecules derived from unsaturated fatty acids.
Proteins are critical components of all body tissues. They are made up of monomers called amino acids, which contain nitrogen, joined by peptide bonds. Protein shape is critical to its function. Most body proteins are globular. An example is enzymes, which catalyze chemical reactions.
Nucleotides are compounds with three building blocks: one or more phosphate groups, a pentose sugar, and a nitrogen-containing base. DNA and RNA are nucleic acids that function in protein synthesis. ATP is the body’s fundamental molecule of energy transfer. Removal or addition of phosphates releases or invests energy.