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Biology HL

3.1

Chemical elements and water

Chemical elements
The most frequently occurring chemical elements in living organisms are:
Carbon

Hydrogen

Oxygen

Nitrogen

(in that order)


However, a variety of other elements are needed by living organisms.
Element

Role in plants

Role in animals

Role in prokaryotes

Sulphur

In some amino acids

In some amino acids

In some amino acids

Calcium

Cofactor in some
enzymes

Cofactor in some
enzymes and
component of bones

Cofactor in some
enzymes

Phosphorus

Phosphate groups in
ATP

Phosphate groups in
ATP

Phosphate groups in
ATP

Iron

In cytochromes

In cytochromes and in
haemoglobin

In cytochromes

Sodium

In membrane function

In membrane function
and sending nerve
impulses

In membrane function

Water
The structure of water means that it has unique properties important to living organisms.
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Fig. 1 shows a water molecule. The hydrogen atoms have a


slight positive charge on them, and the oxygen atom has a
slight negative charge on it. This is because the atoms are
held together by polar covalent bonds resulting from
unequal sharing of electrons. This is because the electrons
are held closer to the oxygen atom, giving it a slight
negative charge, and further away from the hydrogen
atoms, giving them a slight positive charge.

Fig. 1: A water molecule


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Biology HL
3.1

Chemical elements and water

Hydrogen bond

H
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Fig. 2: Two water molecules
showing a hydrogen bond.

H
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Fig. 2 shows two water molecules. The dotted line represents a hydrogen bond. A hydrogen
bond is the bond between the two oppositely charged ends of water molecules.
The structure of water explains its unique properties.
Thermal properties:!!
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Water has a high specific heat capacity water can absorb or give
off a lot of heat without greatly changing temperature (it acts as a
good temperature buffer). Water also has a high heat of
vapourisation water absorbs a great deal of heat when it
evaporates. These features of water mean that many organisms use
water as a cooling mechanism (e.g. sweating or panting. This is
important because particular temperatures need to be maintained to
optimise enzyme activity.
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Water has these properties because of the hydrogen bonds in
its structure. When water is heated, the energy applied is used to
break the hydrogen bonds between water molecules, not to actually
transfer kinetic energy to the molecules. Water also has a huge
temperature range as a liquid (0-100C), and because it freezes from
the top down, in extreme conditions many organisms are able to
survive beneath the surface.

Cohesive properties:!
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Cohesion1 : molecules of the same type being attracted to each other.


Liquid water molecules are cohesive because they are polar, so they
interact with each other. When water molecules are close to each
other, the positively charged end of one molecule attracts the
negatively charged end of another (i.e. a hydrogen bond is formed)
water molecules are said to be sticky because of this. Despite this,
water has a low viscosity, which allows it to be transported in the
xylem of plants.
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The cohesion between liquid water molecules explains why
water forms into droplets when spilled, why water has a surface
tension that allows some organisms to walk on water (or for some to

Cohesion: molecules of the same type being attracted to each other. Adhesion is sticky molecules (such as
water) being attracted to other substances, e.g. water clinging to the sides of a test tube or the xylem in a plants
stem. (Co: with (each other); ! Ad: to (something else))
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Biology HL
3.1

Chemical elements and water


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run on water) and how water is able to move as a column in the


vascular tissues of plants (capillarity).

Solvent properties:! !
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As water is a polar molecule, it is very good at dissolving other polar


molecules. For example, an ionic compound like sodium chloride
dissociates in water there is ionic attraction between the oppositely
charged sodium and chloride ions, but the attraction between the
negatively charged part of the water molecule and the positively
charged sodium ion is greater than the attraction between the sodium
and chloride ions. This is particularly important when the vast
majority of molecules typically found inside cells are polar most
carbohydrates, proteins and nucleic acids are all polar. (Lipids are
mostly relatively non-polar, so most organisms have other special
strategies to deal with the transport of lipids).
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Some large molecules have strong intramolecular forcers and
so do not dissociate or dissolve in water. However, some have
charged areas which attract a layer of water around the molecules.
This layer of water means that the molecules remain dispersed,
which prevents them joining together and settling out. This is known
as a colloidal suspension; the water molecules which surround the
large molecule are weakly bound to the molecule and cannot move
away from its surface. This is important because such molecules
provide an osmotic effect, helping to draw water into blood vessels
for example.
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Because water is such a good solvent for so many
biochemically important molecules, it is often the medium through
which the molecules are transported (e.g. transporting water and
minerals in plants xylem, transporting glucose, amino acids,
fibrinogen, hydrogencarbonate ions (as a means of transporting
CO2), vitamins and some fats) and the medium in which metabolic
reactions are carried out (in the form of aqueous solutions see
below for examples).

Aqueous solution

Location

Common reaction

Cytoplasm

Fluid inside cell but outside


organelles

Glycolysis / Protein
synthesis reactions

Nucleoplasm

Fluid inside nuclear


membrane

DNA replication /
transcription

Stroma

Fluid inside chloroplast


membrane

Light-independent reactions
of photosynthesis

Blood plasma

Fluid in arteries, veins and


capillaries.

Loading and unloading of


respiratory gases / clotting

Soil

Outside root hair cells in


plants roots

Uptake of minerals by
active transport

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Biology HL
3.1

Chemical elements and water

Supportive properties:!
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In plant cells, water confers turgidity. This helps to maximise the


leaves surface area, hence light absorption, hence photosynthesis.
Water also helps to maintain aerial parts of the plant to maximise
seed dispersal and pollination.
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In animals, water-filled tissues also contribute to skeletal
support. In organisms which possess a hydrostatic skeleton (e.g.
annelids), water is the major component of the fluid in the coelom in
which muscles can act.

Movement:!
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Nastic movements, i.e. those which do not involve growth in a


particular direction as a response to a directional stimulus, depend
upon the osmotic inflow of water into tissues, e.g. the opening and
closing of flowers or snapping of the carnivorous Venus Flytrap.
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Organisms such as earthworms and leeches use their
hydrostatic skeletons to move around. Longitudinal and circular
muscles are able to contract against the incompressible watery fluid
of the coelom.

Reproduction:!
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Organisms which employ sexual reproduction use water to bring the


male and female gamete together in the process of fertilisation.
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In mammals the foetus develops in a water-filled sac which
provides physical (and thermal) stability.
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Bryophytes release antherozoids in moist conditions which
use flagella to swim to oospheres by chemotaxis.

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Water potential:!

How easy it is for water to move away from an area.

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A high water potential means it is easy for water to move away


from the area.

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Increasing the amount of solute makes the water potential


more negative. Adding water has the opposite effect.

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Osmotic potential:! The opposite of water potential the degree to which the
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solvent tends to stay in the liquid.

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A high osmotic potential means that it is easy for the solvent to


leave the liquid this is likely to be because it is a
concentrated solution. This therefore means that the water
potential is very low and likely to be negative.

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Increasing the concentration of a solution increases the


osmotic potential. Adding water has the opposite effect.
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