Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Big Four

Our discussions of major natural cycles have highlighted the big four of elements in living things: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. The water cycle also describes the cycling of hydrogen through the biosphere. The fundamental concept of recycling the big four chemical elements to power activities of our daily lives may not hold much potential for fascinating after-dinner discussion. Then again, it may, depending on how much wonder and awe we allow the knowledge of cycling processes to evoke.

The big four were not present in our universe at the initial moment of the Big Bang creation event. Hydrogen, the simplest element, was formed first after the universe cooled sufficiently from its extremely hot plasma state. Helium formation followed. Millions of years later, hydrogen and helium coalesced into stars, and later, galaxies. In the intense heat of these early stars, other elements of the big four, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, were forged from the stars’ nuclear furnace. These elements comprise a great majority of the “ordinary matter” we are familiar with in our universe. “Ordinary matter” is the type of matter we see in our own solar system and through telescopes.

Of the top seven elements detectable in our universe, the big four rank 1, 3, 4, and 7. In the living human body, these four elements comprise 96% by weight. (Oxygen in the water of the living human body causes it to rank first—about two-thirds by weight.) In the dry weight of the human body these same four elements constitute 88%, with carbon making up 50%. No element is more life friendly than carbon. Without it, life in the universe would not exist. Life on this earth is carbon-based life, but many other elements are life essential, in addition to the big four. They are termed micronutrients. For example, one such micronutrient, phosphorus, is an essential component of DNA and RNA which enable genetic inheritance.

The basic structural simplicity of atoms of the big four elements (try to recall your high school chemistry!) of which all life is composed belies the enormous complexity of living systems. The DNA molecule contains a digital code by which living things synthesize thousands of different proteins, the building blocks of their bodies. The human body contains over 100,000 different proteins. Basically, each of these proteins is a collection of strings of amino acids, thousands of atoms of the big four elements and a few other elements assembled and folded in a unique way and built into the correct location in the living system. These unique assemblages depend upon the ability of atoms of the big four and a few others to bond together in infinitely many ways, creating substances with new structures, properties, and functions.

A physical description of the structure of each of the body’s 100,000 proteins is a difficult, but not impossible task. An account of the function of each body protein is also within the realm of possibility. But to explain the origin of the digital code which directs the synthesis of millions of known proteins, is not within the realm of possibility, except as a supernatural act from the mind of the Creator who first produced multiple forms of life on Planet Earth, and later crowned his achievement with the creation of man in His own image.

My mother used to quote scripture and offer prayers in the dignified, linguistically conservative, archaic language of the King James Version. I quote from Psalm 103:14-17, verses which express the simplicity of living things and the elemental matter of which they are composed, hint at the recycling of the matter in flowers of the field as they live and eventually die, and the mercy of God who oversees the entire process:

For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children.