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Carbon and the Molecular Diversity of Life A. Carbon—The Backbone of Biological Molecules Although cells are 70–95% water, the rest consists mostly of carbon-based compounds. Carbon is unparalleled in its ability to form large, complex, and diverse molecules. Carbon accounts for the diversity of biological molecules and has made possible the great diversity of living things. Proteins, DNA, carbohydrates, and other molecules that distinguish living matter from inorganic material are all composed of carbon atoms bonded to each other and to atoms of other elements. These other elements commonly include hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), nitrogen (N), sulfur (S), and phosphorus (P). 1. Organic chemistry is the study of carbon compounds. The study of carbon compounds, organic chemistry, deals with any compound with carbon (organic compounds). Organic compounds can range from simple molecules, such as CO 2 or CH 4 , to complex molecules such as proteins, which may weigh more than 100,000 daltons. The overall percentages of the major elements of life (C, H, O, N, S, and P) are quite uniform from one organism to another. However, because of carbon’s versatility, these few elements can be combined to build an inexhaustible variety of organic molecules. Variations in organic molecules can even account for differences among individuals of the same species. The science of organic chemistry began in attempts to purify and improve the yield of products obtained from other organisms. Initially, chemists learned to synthesize simple compounds in the laboratory, but had no success with more complex compounds. The Swedish chemist Jons Jacob Berzelius was the first to make a distinction between organic compounds that seemed to arise only in living organisms and inorganic compounds that were found in the nonliving world. This led early organic chemists to propose vitalism, the belief that physical and chemical laws did not apply to living things. Support for vitalism began to wane as organic chemists learned to synthesize complex organic compounds in the laboratory.
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In the early 1800s, the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler and his students were able to synthesize urea from totally inorganic materials. In 1953, Stanley Miller at the University of Chicago set up a laboratory simulation of chemical conditions on the primitive Earth and demonstrated the spontaneous synthesis of organic compounds. Such spontaneous synthesis of organic compounds may have been an early stage in the origin of life.
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