What Chemical Elements Make up the Human Body?
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The Elemental Composition of the Human Body

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The Elemental Composition of a Human Body

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The human body is a miraculous, well-oiled, and exceptionally complex machine. It requires a multitude of functioning parts to come together for a person to live a healthy life—and every biological detail in our bodies, from the mundane to the most magical, is driven by just 21 chemical elements.

Of the 118 elements on Earth, just 21 of them are found in the human body. Together, they make up the medley of divergent molecules that combine to form our DNA, cells, tissues, and organs.

Based on data presented by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), in the above infographic, we have broken down a human body to its elemental composition and the percentages in which they exist.

These 21 elements can be categorized into three major blocks depending on the amount found in a human body, the main building block (4 elements), essential minerals (8 elements), and trace elements (9 elements).

The Elemental Four: Ingredients for Life

Four elements, namely, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen, are considered the most essential elements found in our body.

Oxygen is the most abundant element in the human body, accounting for approximately 61% of a person’s mass. Given that around 60-70% of the body is water, it is no surprise that oxygen and hydrogen are two of the body’s most abundantly found chemical elements. Along with carbon and nitrogen, these elements combine for 96% of the body’s mass.

Here is a look at the composition of the four elements of life:

ElementWeight of Body Mass (kg)Percentage of Body Mass (%)
Oxygen43 kg61.4%
Carbon16 kg22.9%
Hydrogen7.0 kg10.0%
Nitrogen1.8 kg2.6%

Values are for an average human body weighing 70 kg.

Let’s take a look at how each of these four chemical elements contributes to the thriving functionality of our body:

Oxygen

Oxygen plays a critical role in the body’s metabolism, respiration, and cellular oxygenation. Oxygen is also found in every significant organic molecule in the body, including proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and nucleic acids. It is a substantial component of everything from our cells and blood to our cerebral and spinal fluid.

Carbon

Carbon is the most crucial structural element and the reason we are known as carbon-based life forms. It is the basic building block required to form proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Breaking carbon bonds in carbohydrates and proteins is our primary energy source.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen, the most abundantly found chemical element in the universe, is present in all bodily fluids, allowing the toxins and waste to be transported and eliminated. With the help of hydrogen, joints in our body remain lubricated and able to perform their functions. Hydrogen is also said to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, helping improve muscle function.

Nitrogen

An essential component of amino acids used to build peptides and proteins is nitrogen. It is also an integral component of the nucleic acids DNA and RNA, the chemical backbone of our genetic information and genealogy.

Essential and Supplemental Minerals

Essential minerals are important for your body to stay healthy. Your body uses minerals for several processes, including keeping your bones, muscles, heart, and brain working properly. Minerals also control beneficial enzyme and hormone production.

Minerals like calcium are a significant component of our bones and are required for bone growth and development, along with muscle contractions. Phosphorus contributes to bone and tooth strength and is vital to metabolizing energy.

Here is a look at the elemental composition of essential minerals:

ElementWeight of Body Mass (g)Percentage of Body Mass (%)
Calcium1000 g1.43%
Phosphorus780 g 1.11%
Potassium140 g0.20%
Sulphur140 g0.20%
Chlorine100 g0.14%
Sodium95 g0.14%
Magnesium19 g0.03%
Iron4.2 g0.01%

Values are for an average human body weighing 70 kg.

Other macro-minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron, and sodium are essential for cell-to-cell communications, like electric transmissions that generate nerve impulses or heart rhythms, and are necessary for maintaining thyroid and bone health.

Excessive deficiency of any of these minerals can cause various disorders in your body. Most humans receive these minerals as a part of their daily diet, including vegetables, meat, legumes, and fruits. In case of deficiencies, though, these minerals are also prescribed as supplements.

Biological Composition of Trace Elements

Trace elements or trace metals are small amounts of minerals found in living tissues. Some of them are known to be nutritionally essential, while others may be considered to be nonessential. They are usually in minimal quantities in our body and make up only 1% of our mass.

Paramount among these are trace elements such as zinc, copper, manganese, and fluorine. Zinc works as a first responder against infections and thereby improves infection resistance, while balancing the immune response.

Here is the distribution of trace elements in our body:

ElementWeight of Body Mass (mg)Percentage of Body Mass (%)
Fluorine2600 mg0.00371%
Zinc2300 mg0.00328%
Copper72 mg0.00010%
Iodine13 mg0.00002%
Manganese12 mg0.00002%
Molybdenum9.5 mg0.00001%
Selenium8 mg0.00001%
Chromium6.6 mg0.00001%
Cobalt1.5 mg0.000002%

Values are for an average human body weighing 70 kg.

Even though only it’s found in trace quantities, copper is instrumental in forming red blood cells and keeping nerve cells healthy. It also helps form collagen, a crucial part of bones and connective tissue.

Even with constant research and studies performed to thoroughly understand these trace elements’ uses and benefits, scientists and researchers are constantly making new discoveries.

For example, recent research shows that some of these trace elements could be used to cure and fight chronic and debilitating diseases ranging from ischemia to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension.

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All the Contents of the Universe, in One Graphic

We explore the ultimate frontier: the composition of the entire known universe, some of which are still being investigated today.

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The Composition of the Universe

All the Contents of the Universe, in One Graphic

Scientists agree that the universe consists of three distinct parts: everyday visible (or measurable) matter, and two theoretical components called dark matter and dark energy.

These last two are theoretical because they have yet to be directly measured—but even without a full understanding of these mysterious pieces to the puzzle, scientists can infer that the universe’s composition can be broken down as follows:

ComponentValue    
Dark energy68%
Dark matter27%
Free hydrogen and helium4%
Stars0.5%
Neutrinos0.3%
Heavy elements0.03%

Let’s look at each component in more detail.

Dark Energy

Dark energy is the theoretical substance that counteracts gravity and causes the rapid expansion of the universe. It is the largest part of the universe’s composition, permeating every corner of the cosmos and dictating how it behaves and how it will eventually end.

Dark Matter

Dark matter, on the other hand, has a restrictive force that works closely alongside gravity. It is a sort of “cosmic cement” responsible for holding the universe together. Despite avoiding direct measurement and remaining a mystery, scientists believe it makes up the second largest component of the universe.

Free Hydrogen and Helium

Free hydrogen and helium are elements that are free-floating in space. Despite being the lightest and most abundant elements in the universe, they make up roughly 4% of its total composition.

Stars, Neutrinos, and Heavy Elements

All other hydrogen and helium particles that are not free-floating in space exist in stars.

Stars are one of the most populous things we can see when we look up at the night sky, but they make up less than one percent—roughly 0.5%—of the cosmos.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that are similar to electrons, but they are nearly weightless and carry no electrical charge. Although they erupt out of every nuclear reaction, they account for roughly 0.3% of the universe.

Heavy elements are all other elements aside from hydrogen and helium.

Elements form in a process called nucleosynthesis, which takes places within stars throughout their lifetimes and during their explosive deaths. Almost everything we see in our material universe is made up of these heavy elements, yet they make up the smallest portion of the universe: a measly 0.03%.

How Do We Measure the Universe?

In 2009, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a space observatory called Planck to study the properties of the universe as a whole.

Its main task was to measure the afterglow of the explosive Big Bang that originated the universe 13.8 billion years ago. This afterglow is a special type of radiation called cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR).

Temperature can tell scientists much about what exists in outer space. When investigating the “microwave sky”, researchers look for fluctuations (called anisotropy) in the temperature of CMBR. Instruments like Planck help reveal the extent of irregularities in CMBR’s temperature, and inform us of different components that make up the universe.

You can see below how the clarity of CMBR changes over time with multiple space missions and more sophisticated instrumentation.
CMBR Instruments

What Else is Out There?

Scientists are still working to understand the properties that make up dark energy and dark matter.

NASA is currently planning a 2027 launch of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, an infrared telescope that will hopefully help us in measuring the effects of dark energy and dark matter for the first time.

As for what’s beyond the universe? Scientists aren’t sure.

There are hypotheses that there may be a larger “super universe” that contains us, or we may be a part of one “island” universe set apart from other island multiverses. Unfortunately we aren’t able to measure anything that far yet. Unravelling the mysteries of the deep cosmos, at least for now, remains a local endeavor.

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Science

Visualizing the Relationship Between Cancer and Lifespan

New research links mutation rates and lifespan. We visualize the data supporting this new framework for understanding cancer.

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Cancer and lifespan

A Newfound Link Between Cancer and Aging?

A new study in 2022 reveals a thought-provoking relationship between how long animals live and how quickly their genetic codes mutate.

Cancer is a product of time and mutations, and so researchers investigated its onset and impact within 16 unique mammals. A new perspective on DNA mutation broadens our understanding of aging and cancer development—and how we might be able to control it.

Mutations, Aging, and Cancer: A Primer

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells. It is not a pathogen that infects the body, but a normal body process gone wrong.

Cells divide and multiply in our bodies all the time. Sometimes, during DNA replication, tiny mistakes (called mutations) appear randomly within the genetic code. Our bodies have mechanisms to correct these errors, and for much of our youth we remain strong and healthy as a result of these corrective measures.

However, these protections weaken as we age. Developing cancer becomes more likely as mutations slip past our defenses and continue to multiply. The longer we live, the more mutations we carry, and the likelihood of them manifesting into cancer increases.

A Biological Conundrum

Since mutations can occur randomly, biologists expect larger lifeforms (those with more cells) to have greater chances of developing cancer than smaller lifeforms.

Strangely, no association exists.

It is one of biology’s biggest mysteries as to why massive creatures like whales or elephants rarely seem to experience cancer. This is called Peto’s Paradox. Even stranger: some smaller creatures, like the naked mole rat, are completely resistant to cancer.

This phenomenon motivates researchers to look into the genetics of naked mole rats and whales. And while we’ve discovered that special genetic bonuses (like extra tumor-suppressing genes) benefit these creatures, a pattern for cancer rates across all other species is still poorly understood.

Cancer May Be Closely Associated with Lifespan

Researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute report the first study to look at how mutation rates compare with animal lifespans.

Mutation rates are simply the speed at which species beget mutations. Mammals with shorter lifespans have average mutation rates that are very fast. A mouse undergoes nearly 800 mutations in each of its four short years on Earth. Mammals with longer lifespans have average mutation rates that are much slower. In humans (average lifespan of roughly 84 years), it comes to fewer than 50 mutations per year.

The study also compares the number of mutations at time of death with other traits, like body mass and lifespan. For example, a giraffe has roughly 40,000 times more cells than a mouse. Or a human lives 90 times longer than a mouse. What surprised researchers was that the number of mutations at time of death differed only by a factor of three.

Such small differentiation suggests there may be a total number of mutations a species can collect before it dies. Since the mammals reached this number at different speeds, finding ways to control the rate of mutations may help stall cancer development, set back aging, and prolong life.

The Future of Cancer Research

The findings in this study ignite new questions for understanding cancer.

Confirming that mutation rate and lifespan are strongly correlated needs comparison to lifeforms beyond mammals, like fishes, birds, and even plants.

It will also be necessary to understand what factors control mutation rates. The answer to this likely lies within the complexities of DNA. Geneticists and oncologists are continuing to investigate genetic curiosities like tumor-suppressing genes and how they might impact mutation rates.

Aging is likely to be a confluence of many issues, like epigenetic changes or telomere shortening, but if mutations are involved then there may be hopes of slowing genetic damage—or even reversing it.

While just a first step, linking mutation rates to lifespan is a reframing of our understanding of cancer development, and it may open doors to new strategies and therapies for treating cancer or taming the number of health-related concerns that come with aging.

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