The Elements in Living Cells


Some common molecules include carbon dioxide, ammonia, and oxygen, which consist of combinations of oxygen atoms (red spheres), carbon atoms (gray spheres), hydrogen atoms (white spheres), or nitrogen atoms (blue spheres).

OpenStax Microbiology

The most abundant element in cells is hydrogen (H), followed by carbon (C), oxygen (O), nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and sulfur (S). We call these elements macronutrients, and they account for about 99% of the dry weight of cells. Some elements, such as sodium (Na), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), zinc (Zn), iron (Fe), calcium (Ca), molybdenum (Mo), copper (Cu), cobalt (Co), manganese (Mn), or vanadium (Va), are required by some cells in very small amounts and are called micronutrients or trace elements. All of these elements are essential to the function of many biochemical reactions, and, therefore, are essential to life.

The four most abundant elements in living matter (C, N, O, and H) have low atomic numbers and are thus light elements capable of forming strong bonds with other atoms to produce molecules. Carbon forms four chemical bonds, whereas nitrogen forms three, oxygen forms two, and hydrogen forms one. When bonded together within molecules, oxygen, sulfur, and nitrogen often have one or more “lone pairs” of electrons that play important roles in determining many of the molecules’ physical and chemical properties. These traits in combination permit the formation of a vast number of diverse molecular species necessary to form the structures and enable the functions of living organisms.

Living organisms contain inorganic compounds (mainly water and salts) and organic molecules. Organic molecules contain carbon; inorganic compounds do not. Carbon oxides and carbonates are exceptions; they contain carbon but are considered inorganic because they do not contain hydrogen. The atoms of an organic molecule are typically organized around chains of carbon atoms.

Inorganic compounds make up 1%–1.5% of a living cell’s mass. They are small, simple compounds that play important roles in the cell, although they do not form cell structures. Most of the carbon found in organic molecules originates from inorganic carbon sources such as carbon dioxide captured via carbon fixation by microorganisms.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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