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The Lewis structure of a carbon atom, showing its four valence electrons

Carbon is a key component of all known life on Earth, representing approximately 45-50% of all dry biomass.[1] Complex molecules are made up of carbon bonded with other elements, especially oxygen and hydrogen and frequently also with nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. Carbon is abundant on Earth. It is also lightweight and relatively small in size, making it easier for enzymes to manipulate carbon molecules.[citation needed] It is frequently assumed in astrobiology that if life exists elsewhere in the universe, it will also be carbon-based.[2][3] Critics refer to this assumption as carbon chauvinism.[4]



Carbon forms a vast number of compounds, more than any other element, with almost ten million compounds described to date,[5] and yet that number is but a fraction of the number of theoretically possible compounds under standard conditions. For this reason, carbon has often been referred to as the "king of the elements".[6]

Carbon is the 15th most abundant element in the Earth's crust, and the fourth most abundant element in the universe by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. Carbon's abundance, its unique diversity of organic compounds, and its unusual ability to form polymers at the temperatures commonly encountered on Earth enables this element to serve as a common element of all known life. It is the second most abundant element in the human body by mass (about 18.5%) after oxygen.[7]

"What we normally think of as 'life' is based on chains of carbon atoms, with a few other atoms, such as nitrogen or phosphorus", per Stephen Hawking in a 2008 lecture, "carbon [...] has the richest chemistry." [8] The most important characteristics of carbon as a basis for the chemistry of life are, that it has four valence bonds, and that the energy required to make or break a bond is at an appropriate level for building molecules, which are stable and reactive.[citation needed] Carbon atoms bond readily to other carbon atoms; this allows the building of arbitrarily long complex molecules and polymers.[citation needed]

In a 2018 study carbon was found to compose approximately 550 billion tons of all life on Earth.[9][10]

Other candidatesEdit

There are not many other elements which even appear to be promising candidates for supporting life, for example, processes such as metabolism. The most frequently suggested alternative is silicon.[11] Silicon is in the same group in the Periodic Table of elements, and has four valence bonds, and bonds to itself, generally in the form of crystal lattices rather than long chains.[citation needed] It is considerably more electropositive than carbon. Silicon compounds do not readily recombine into different permutations in a manner that would plausibly support lifelike processes.[citation needed]

Key moleculesEdit

The most notable groups of chemicals used in the processes of living organisms include:

  • Proteins, which are the building blocks from which the structures of living organisms are constructed (this includes almost all enzymes, which catalyse organic chemical reactions)
  • Nucleic acids, which carry genetic information
  • Carbohydrates, which store energy in a form that can be used by living cells
  • Lipids, which also store energy, but in a more concentrated form, and which may be stored for extended periods in the bodies of animals


Silicon has been a theme of non-carbon-based-life since it is somewhat similar to carbon in its chemical characteristics. In cinematic and literary science fiction, when man-made machines cross from non-living to living, this new form would be an example of non-carbon-based life. Since the advent of the microprocessor in the late 1960s, these machines are often classed as "silicon-based life". Another example of "silicon-based life" is the episode "The Devil in the Dark" from Star Trek: The Original Series, in which a living rock creature's biochemistry is based on silicon. Also in The X-Files episode "Firewalker" where silicon based organism was discovered in a volcano.

In the movie adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's "2010" (1984) a character argues, "Whether we are based on carbon or on silicon makes no fundamental difference; we should each be treated with appropriate respect"[12]. This quote may be the basis of Steve Jobs's quip when he introduced Carbon within Mac OS X[13], "Carbon. All life forms will be based on it."

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Knowledge reference for national forest assessments - modeling for estimation and monitoring". Retrieved Feb 20, 2019.
  2. ^ "Astrobiology". Biology Cabinet. September 26, 2006. Retrieved 2011-01-17.
  3. ^ "Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons: An Interview With Dr. Farid Salama". Astrobiology magazine. 2000. Archived from the original on 2008-06-20. Retrieved 2008-10-20.
  4. ^ Darling, David. "Carbon-based life". Encyclopedia of Life. Retrieved 14 September 2007.
  5. ^ "There are close to ten million known carbon compounds, many thousands of which are vital to organic and life processes." Chemistry Operations (December 15, 2003). "Carbon". Los Alamos National Laboratory. Archived from the original on 2008-09-13. Retrieved 2008-10-09.
  6. ^ Deming, Anna (2010). "King of the elements?". Nanotechnology. 21 (30): 300201. Bibcode:2010Nanot..21D0201D. doi:10.1088/0957-4484/21/30/300201. PMID 20664156.
  7. ^ Reece, Jane B. (31 October 2013). Campbell Biology (10 ed.). Pearson. ISBN 9780321775658.
  8. ^ Stephen Hawking (1 October 2008). "Life in the Universe, 50th anniversary celebration of NASA". NASA. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
  9. ^ Bar-On, Yinon M.; Phillips, Rob; Milo, Ron (May 21, 2018). "The biomass distribution on Earth". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 115 (25): 6506–6511. doi:10.1073/pnas.1711842115. PMC 6016768. Retrieved Feb 20, 2019.
  10. ^ editor, Damian Carrington Environment (May 21, 2018). "Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals – study". Retrieved Feb 20, 2019 – via
  11. ^ Pace, NR (2001). "The universal nature of biochemistry" (PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 98 (3): 805–8. Bibcode:2001PNAS...98..805P. doi:10.1073/pnas.98.3.805. PMC 33372. PMID 11158550.
  12. ^ "2010: Quotes". IMDb. Retrieved 26 July 2017.
  13. ^ "WWDC '98". NotesKey. May 11, 1998. Retrieved 26 July 2017.

External linksEdit