Biochemistry aims to explain biological form and function in chemical terms. As we noted earlier, one of the most fruitful approaches to understanding biological phenomena has been to purify an individual chemical component, such as a protein, from a living organism and to characterize its structural and chemical characteristics. By the late eighteenth century, chemists had concluded that the composition of living matter is strikingly different from that of the inanimate world. Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) noted the relative chemical simplicity of the "mineral world" and contrasted it with the complexity of the "plant and animal worlds"; the latter, he knew, were composed of compounds rich in the elements carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus.
During the first half of the twentieth century, parallel biochemical investigations of glucose breakdown in yeast and in animal muscle cells revealed remarkable chemical similarities in these two apparently very different cell types; the breakdown of glucose in yeast and muscle cells involved the same ten chemical intermediates. Subsequent studies of many other biochemical processes in many different organisms have confirmed the generality of this observation, neatly summarized by Jacques Monod: "What is true of E. coli is true of the elephant." The current understanding that all organisms share a common evolutionary origin is based in part on this observed universality of chemical intermediates and transformations.
Only about 30 of the more than 90 naturally occurring chemical elements are essential to organisms. Most of the elements in living matter have relatively low atomic numbers; only five have atomic numbers above that of selenium, 34 (Fig. 1-12). The four most abundant elements in living organisms, in terms of percentage of total number of atoms, are hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon, which together make up more than 99% of the mass of most cells. They are the lightest elements capable of forming one, two, three, and four bonds, respectively; in general, the lightest elements
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