Why Is Carbon So Important In Biology? Key Element Of Life On Earth

high resolution carbon

Why is carbon so important in biology? This was a question that we felt deserved an in-depth answer. Carbon, which so many of us take for granted, is actually one of the most important elements to life as we know it. Carbon's molecular structure gives it the ability to form stable bonds with other elements, including itself, which makes it the central element of organic compounds. It makes up almost 20% of the weight of an organism, and it is essential for them to live, to grow, and to reproduce.

Because of its ability to form these bonds, carbon can create very large and complex molecules called macromolecules that make up living organisms. This is part of why this versatile element is considered the backbone, or basic structural component, of these molecules. Still wondering "Why is carbon so important in biology?" Let's take a deeper look at what this element is, what it does, and what it is used for, because there is much more to learn about carbon.

What Is Carbon?

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element on earth, and it is a finite resource because it cycles through the earth in so many forms. Without carbon, life as we know it would cease to exist because it is the main element in organic compounds that make up living things. The presence or absence of carbon determines whether an organism is organic or inorganic.

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The Element

The name for carbon comes from the Latin word 'carbo' which means coal. It has the atomic number 6 and uses the symbol C. The 6 represents six electrons and six protons and its placement is in the middle of the periodic table as a representation that it is central to life as we know it. Some refer to carbon as the 'King of the Elements' because it is an absolute necessary to life. It has the highest melting point of the pure elements at 3,500 degrees Celsius, and it's one of the elements that ancient man knew in its pure form.

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Stable Bonds

Carbon's molecular structure allows it to form bonds with many elements, itself other carbon elements. Because of this, it can form long chain molecules, each having different properties. Carbon remains in balance with other chemical reactions in the atmosphere and water because of its stability.

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Organic Compounds

Organic compounds make up the cells and other structures of living organisms and they carry out the processes of life. Carbon is the main element of organic compounds we need to live. We group these organic compounds into four types: Carbohydrates (sugars and starches), Lipids (fats and oils), Proteins (enzymes and antibodies), and Nucleic Acids (DNA, RNA). Still wondering why is carbon so important in biology? It's role in creating living organisms is one of the core reasons we study it.

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How Carbon Moves

Carbon, in its many forms, does not stay still. It moves all around the earth. It can move with respiration, photosynthesis, as a part of food chains, and by burning fuel, just to name a few.

What Is The Carbon Cycle?

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element on earth, and it is a finite resource because it cycles through the earth in so many forms. Without carbon, life as we know it would cease to exist because it is the main element in organic compounds that make up living things. The presence or absence of carbon determines whether an organism is organic or inorganic.

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The Geological Carbon Cycle

The Geological Carbon Cycle is driven by the movements of the earth's tectonic plates and geological processes such as chemical weathering. The Geological Carbon cycle is how carbon moves between rocks and minerals, seawater, and the atmosphere. It takes place over millions of years.

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The Biological or Physical Carbon Cycle

The Biological or Physical Carbon Cycle is the way carbon cycles through vegetation, herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, soil, and in fossil fuel burning. It takes place from days to thousands of years.

Why Is Carbon So Important In Biology?

illustration of a dna gene

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Carbon is important in biology because without it, life itself would not exist. Carbon is important in everyday life for all living beings in order for them to live, grow, and reproduce. Carbon compounds are also very versatile and they are in many objects we use every day. Remember, the presence of carbon determines whether something is organic or inorganic.

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Carbon And The Human Body

Sugars, DNA, proteins, fats, pretty much everything except water contains carbon in the human body. If you have heard it said water makes up most of the human body, then it would also be correct to say carbon makes up most of the other parts. This is another great example of an answer to the question "Why is carbon so important in biology?"

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Photosynthesis And Respiration

The human body inhales oxygen from the atmosphere and when it combines with carbon, it creates carbon dioxide. The body does not need carbon dioxide so we exhale it when we breathe. Plants are the exact opposite. They take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and give off oxygen back into the atmosphere for us to breathe. All the carbon in your body once existed in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

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Inorganic Compounds

ember from the heated wood

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Many things we use are made of carbon. Rubber, plastics, gasoline, natural gas, are just a few examples. Also, coal and diamonds are made up of mostly carbon, and graphite, which gives pencil lead its black color, is pure carbon. Whenever a fire is burned, the black soot that results is a form of carbon.

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Abundance In Nature

Carbon is found in different forms in all living beings on earth. Carbon is not only found in abundance on the earth, but the sun and the stars also contain carbon. Carbon also exists on many planets in the form of carbon dioxide.

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Factors That Affect Carbon In The Atmosphere

There are many factors that affect the global concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, including seasons and human activities like carbon dioxide emissions. Environmental scientists and policy makers seek to understand these factors so they can try to pass regulations to offset negative impacts to the atmosphere.

How We Use Carbon

Allotropes are materials made from the same element, but their atoms fit together differently. Carbon exists on earth in three different allotropes: amorphous, graphite, and diamond. Almost every industry on the planet uses some form of carbon in their every day operations, and we highlight a few of those here.

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Fuel

We use carbon for fuel in the form of coal, methane gas, petroleum, natural gas, and crude oil. There have also been some exciting breakthroughs by researchers as they have discovered how to take carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into fuel. This could mean a more environmentally friendly fuel for the world.

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Graphite

Graphite is pure carbon, and we use it for pencil tips, and one mechanical pencil lead of 0.7mm, has about 2 million layers of Graphene. It is also used as a lubricant, for high temperature crucibles, and electrodes. One form of graphite, called Graphene, is the thinnest strongest material ever known.

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Materials

ink printers

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Carbon can form alloys with iron which makes carbon steel. We also find it in rubber, plastic, wood, and black pigment in ink used for printers or painting.

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Diamonds

Diamonds are used to make jewelry, but because they are so hard that we also use them for cutting, drilling, grinding, and polishing. You can purchase many items such as cutting wheels that feature small diamonds on the edge for better cutting capabilities.

Conclusion

co2 written on a blackboard

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Here we have answered the question "why is carbon so important in biology?" and in doing so, we have discovered many interesting facts about this element. The first and most important is that we could not live if carbon did not exist. Every organic compound is built around this essential element and we need it for life as we know it. The presence or absence of this element determines whether something is organic or inorganic.


Another answer for the question "why is carbon so important in biology?" is that this element exists everywhere on earth. As the fourth most abundant element, not just on earth, but in the universe, it will forever be a part of our existence. It is interesting to note that more compounds exist that contain carbon than those that don't, and this is something for which we should be grateful.

Why is carbon so important in biology? It's not just one, but many reasons why it's so important, many of which we have listed here in our article. Carbon allows us to exist and it is in many of the things we use every day to build, create, and produce energy. Essential for life and useful, no wonder we call it the building block of life.

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