Carbon in the foundation of life

n its pure state and depending on how its atoms are arranged, carbon can form both the hardest known mineral, diamond, and one of the softest, graphite. Structurally, carbon is made up of a hexagonal layered network. Graphite is made of layers of carbon atoms that can slide over each other easily, which is what makes this mineral soft.  Graphite is best known for it excellent mechanical and electrical properties.

The chemical properties of carbon allow it to bind with large numbers of different atoms to form huge, complex molecules. Carbon chemistry is so varied that it is capable of forming more chemical compounds than any other element present in the periodic table put together. The complexities of carbon make it unsurprsing to see why there is a specific branch of chemistry that is dedicated to the study of compounds that make up carbon. This branch of chemistry is called organic chemistry.

Living things are particularly complex. Bodies need to perform multiple tasks, often all at the same time, simply to stay alive. For example, human cells are constantly converting sugars into energy, deciphering and producing genetic material, transmitting information from one side to the other, absorbing and processing nutrients, all to keep the body functioning. In simple terms, the body performs a lot of different processes at the same time, which requires lots of different chemical compounds to work together in order for all these different processes to successfully take place. Carbon forms around 18% of the human body, and is the only known element that is capable of supplying a complex organism with the chemical diversity it needs to exist.

The theory that the ‘foundation of life is based on carbon’, is why astrobiologists (scientists who study how life might be present or could develop elsewhere in the universe) believe that 'intelligent' life is likely to be found on other planets. Carbon is understood to be one of the most commonly found elements in the universe and is believed to be present on all planets in some capacity. The presence of carbon in the universe makes it reasonable to suggest that intelligent life could evolve from it, serving to validate the importance of continued astrobiological research. 

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