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WATER - THE ELIXIR OF LIFE

Life on Earth could not exist without water. Discussions about possible life on
Mars or on some of the moons of Jupiter all connect to the possible presence of
water there. Why is water so important?
WATER AS SUPPORT FOR LIVING SYSTEMS
The bipolar nature of water molecules was discussed in the section on hydrogen
bonding, and much of what water can do that other liquids cant is based upon
waters polar nature. First, water is important as the support liquid for the "soup"
of ions and molecules that absolutely must be free to move around in order to
produce the complicated chemistry of Life. Ions and certain parts of molecules
attract one end or the other of water molecules, making it possible for them to
dissolve. The "layer" of water molecules surrounding dissolved ions and
molecules is called a hydration shell. When things dissolve, they are called
solutes and the supporting liquid is the solvent, and water is an excellent
solvent. Living cells are a combination of water, lots of various materials
dissolved in the water (that is all a solution), and oily membrane barriers that
allow isolation of different chemical processes, including the broad isolation of a
cell from its surroundings.

A side effect of water molecules attraction for other molecules (called adhesion)
is the ability of water to climb small tubes by sticking to the walls. Water
molecules powerful attraction for each other (called cohesion) allows columns of
water to hold together even in the tallest of trees. Materials with an attraction
for water molecules are generally water-soluble, and are called hydrophilic;
materials that do not have this attraction are not soluble and are called
hydrophobic; these are used in the cell membrane barriers already discussed,
among other things.
WATER AS AN ENVIRONMENTAL STABILIZER
Water as a medium on this planet also serves a role environmentally. It is very
stable as temperatures change because of the hydrogen bonds between the
water molecules themselves. If you think of heat as energy that increases the
motion of atoms and molecules, you wont be far from a technical definition.
When water absorbs heat, the molecules do move faster but the "glue" of the
hydrogen bonds slows the process. Heat is transmitted slowly through water,
and large bodies of water take a long time to heat up. That energy does not
quickly come back out if the temperature around the water drops, either, so
masses of water cool more slowly than other liquids would.

Masses of water also are stable in that individual molecules that have picked up
heat / motion have a hard time getting free into the atmosphere, or evaporating.
There are two reasons for this: the first is that heat is passed around fairly
evenly (if slowly) and so the number of molecules going fast enough to zip free
rises slowly; the second is that hydrogen bonding at the water-atmosphere
surface pulls molecules at the surface more tightly together (this produces the
surface tension that lets you put slightly more water into a glass than its volume

- youve seen the "dome" of water on top? - or that bugs walk across without
sinking) and leaves less room for potential evaporating molecules to squeeze
through. This also explains why evaporation is a cooling process (useful in
sweating, or dogs panting): what is lost during evaporation are the very fastest,
very hottest molecules, leaving whats behind cooler.

Connected to the above property is the wide range of temperature in which


water is liquid; although life is tricky at extremes near freezing and boiling, it is
possible, as long as water remains liquid.

Another fairly unique property of water is how it solidifies: if water cools, its
molecules move more slowly, collide more rarely, and tend to pack more closely
together. Like most substances, water gets more dense as it cools. However,
when too crowded, at about 4 C, the repulsions among the tightly-packed
bipolar molecules cause them to slip into an arrangement which, as the
temperature drops, actually pushes them further apart into kind of a crystal
arrangement. We all know that ice floats; what this means is that water in its
solid form is less dense than water in its liquid form. If ice did not float, it would
freeze, sink, and expose more surface to freeze, and sink, and frozen bodies of
water would be frozen solid from bottom to surface, a very poor environment for
living things and a difficult task to thaw. In fact, floating ice acts as an insulator
to the water underneath it. The thicker the ice, the harder it is for the water to
lose heat and freeze, so very few deep bodies of water, even in the coldest
climates, are totally frozen.
WATER IONIZATION AND pH
Its easy to think of molecules as solid objects whizzing around space, but with all
of their parts they are constantly shaking and may even pop apart occasionally.
In a typical container of pure water, .0000001 (10-7) of the H2O molecule pairs
have collided and come apart at any given moment into two ions, H+ (hydrogen
ion, actually an individual proton, and which tends to associate with water
molecules as a hydronium ion, H3O+), and OH- (hydroxide ion). They do not
stay apart indefinitely, and while some water molecules are coming apart, others
are reforming. While apart, though, either of these ions can react with other
materials, and being tiny and charged, they can get into and react with many
sorts of materials. In pure water, the fact that the two ions are in balance and
that there arent many of them limits what they can do - water has little chemical
effect and is considered neutral. However, any material dissolved in the water
that changes the balance of hydrogen or hydroxide ions will also change the
chemistry of the solution. A solution rich in hydrogen ions is an acid, while one
rich in hydroxide ions is a base.

The pH of a solution is based on the concentration of hydrogen ions (pH =


proportion of Hydrogen), and the numbers of the pH scale come from the
decimals of that proportion. Pure water, with a hydrogen ion concentration of
10-7, has a pH of seven (a scale with negative numbers was, apparently, just too
confusing); anything that releases more hydrogen ions changes the

concentration and drops the pH below seven and is considered an acid. A


material that lowers the hydrogen ion concentration will raise the hydroxide
concentration and the pH above seven and is considered a base (older
terminology would have called it an alkali). From this you should see that every
unit change on a pH scale is actually a tenfold change in hydrogen ion
concentration. Both of the ions are small and chemically unstable, so the more
there are, the more they can disrupt the chemistry of other materials, especially
large biological molecules whose shapes depend upon hydrogen bonds - an
environment with lots of charged particles can disrupt those weak charge
attractions, which is why stomach acid is an important first step in breaking
down the molecules in food. Strangely enough, dissolved in our stomach acid is
a large protein-digesting molecule, pepsin, which can only keep its active shape
in the presence of lots of hydrogen ions, another example of real life appearing
to break the rules.