essential element

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Any of a number of elements required by living organisms to ensure normal growth, development, and maintenance. Apart from the elements found in organic compounds (i.e. carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen), plants, animals, and microorganisms all require a range of elements in inorganic forms in varying amounts, depending on the type of organism. The major elements, present in tissues in relatively large amounts (greater than 0.005%), are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chlorine, sulphur, and magnesium (see also macronutrient). The trace elements occur at much lower concentrations and thus requirements are much less. The most important are iron, manganese, zinc, copper, iodine, cobalt, selenium, molybdenum, chromium, and silicon (see also micronutrient). Each element may fulfil one or more of a variety of metabolic roles. Sodium, potassium, and chloride ions are the chief electrolytic components of cells and body fluids and thus determine their electrical and osmotic status. Calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium are all present in bone. Calcium is also essential for cell signalling and nerve and muscle activity, while phosphorus is a key constituent of the chemical energy carriers (e.g. ATP) and the nucleic acids. Sulphur is needed primarily for amino acid synthesis (in plants and microorganisms). The trace elements may serve as cofactors or as constituents of complex molecules, e.g. iron in haem and cobalt in vitamin B12. See also mineral deficiency.

Subjects: Biological Sciences.

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