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Matter is defined as anything that takes up space, and has a discernible mass. All cells, tissues, and organs in the body
are composed of matter arranged in small units, known as atoms. Atoms of the same type are known as elements.
Atoms are composed of three main subatomic particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. These
differ in their mass, position within the atom, and electrical charge.

The number of protons within an atom identifies it as a particular element and each element has an
atomic number that identifies the number of protons at its core.
All structures within the body are formed from elements. Currently, there are 117 recognized elements,
25 of which are commonly found in the body. The names of elements are described using a one or two
letter abbreviation or chemical symbol. They are organized by atomic number in a table known as the
periodic table.


Atoms are considered the basic structural unit of matter. They are comprised of even smaller units, known as
subatomic particles. There are three types of subatomic particle: protons, neutrons, and electrons.
An atom is defined by the number of protons it contains in the nucleus. Because atoms are electrically neutral, the
number of proteins and electrons are equal. The number of protons with the nucleus differs from atom to atom, and is
the basis of identification of the atom as a chemical element.


Protons are positively charged particles found within the center of an atom, in the nucleus.
Neutrons are also found within the nucleus; however, they carry no charge and are thus considered neutral.
- Electrons
Electrons are negatively charged particles found moving around in the electron clouds that envelop the nucleus.


There are several models used to explain the relative position, size, and number of subatomic particles within a
particular atom. These models include the electron cloud model and the electron shell model. The electron shell
model is the most commonly used representation.

Electron clouds
Electron clouds represent the large space surrounding the nucleus of the atom. Electrons orbit
around the central nucleus of the atom in these electron clouds.

Electron shells
The electron shell model depicts electrons in a series of concentric circles around the central
nucleus of the atom. An atom can have many electron shells, each representing a different energy
level. Electron shells farther from the nucleus have a greater amount of energy because the attraction
between the positive nucleus and negatively charged electrons is weaker.
The number of electrons that each successive shell can hold is finite. The first and innermost electron
shell holds two electrons, the second holds eight, and the third can hold up to 18.
The electron shells are filled from the inside out, with the outermost electron shell being known as the
valence shell.


The periodic table is an organized catalog of known chemical elements. Elements are listed according to
increasing atomic number and are arranged in a series of vertical columns and horizontal rows. Vertical columns
within the periodic table are known as groups, and elements found within the same group display similar properties.
Horizontal rows within the periodic table are known as periods, and elements are arranged in periods according to
increasing atomic number (from left to right).
Elements found within the same vertical column are said to be in the same group, and are often named according to
their similar properties. For example, group 0 elements have a full outer electron shell, and are thus chemically
inert. They are also gaseous, and hence known as noble gases.
There are 25 elements commonly found within the body (the most important are displayed in the table below). Not
all elements, however, are found in the body in their normal state. Some elements, due to other influences in the
body, e.g., other atoms or elements, are found in their ionized or charged forms.
Ions can be positively charged or negatively charged. Positively charged ions are produced by the loss of one or
more electrons. Negatively charged ions are produced by the addition of one or more electrons. Ionization of an
element or atom is usually represented by a + or - symbol, e.g., H+ and Cl-. Cations have a positive charge,
produced by the loss of one or more electrons. Anions have a negative charge, produced by the addition of one or
more electrons. If more than one electron is lost or gained, this is usually denoted by a number, e.g., Fe 2+ and O

Hydrogen forms approximately 9.5% of total body mass and is found in organic molecules, in
water, and as hydrogen ions (H+), which make solutions acidic.

Carbon forms approximately 18.5% of total body mass. It is found in the majority of molecules in
the body functioning as the backbone of many organic substrates, such as carbohydrates,
proteins, and lipids.

Nitrogen constitutes approximately 3.2% of total body mass, forming the amine group found in
proteins and nucleic acids.

Oxygen forms approximately 65% of total body mass. It is a constituent of many organic
molecules, as part of hydroxyl, carboxyl, and phosphate groups. Oxygen also forms part of many
important inorganic molecules, e.g., water.

Sodium in its cationic form (Na+) is an important component of extracellular fluid. It affects the
volume of fluid inside and outside of the cells and thus plays an important role in maintaining fluid

Magnesium is one of the less common elements found in the body; however, in its ionized form, it
plays an important role in the structure and action of many enzymes. Over half of the magnesium
in the body is present within bone as magnesium salts, the rest forms part of intracellular fluid.
Magnesium also contributes to the structure of the sodium-potassium pump.
Phosphorus contributes to the structure of teeth and to the matrix of bone tissue as part of the
molecule calcium phosphate. Phosphorus also contributes to the structure of nucleic acids, the
plasma membrane, and the energy molecule, ATP.

Sulfur is another of the less common elements found in the body. It contributes to the structure of
some proteins, such as insulin, and to vitamins, such as thiamine.

Chlorine in its anionic form (Cl-) is an important component of extracellular fluid: it affects the
volume of fluid inside and outside the cells and, by doing so, helps maintain fluid homeostasis.

Potassium in its cationic form (K+) is an important component of intracellular fluid, helping to
maintain the body's normal fluid levels. Potassium plays an important role in maintaining fluid
homeostasis and also contributes to the conduction and generation of action potentials.

Calcium contributes to the hardness of bones and teeth. In its ionized form it contributes to
excitation-contraction coupling in muscles, to blood clotting, and to the release of
neurotransmitters from nerve cells.

Iron in its ionized state forms part of hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying pigment found in red blood
cells) and myoglobin (a similar molecule found in muscle cells). It is also a component of some
enzymes found in the body.


The properties of an atom determine how it will behave around other atoms. Two important factors, the atomic
number and the mass number of the atom, primarily dictate how it will behave and where it will sit as an element
in the periodic table.
Atomic number
The atomic number represents the number of protons found in the nucleus of each atom, thus
each element has an individual atomic number. For example, the element oxygen has eight
protons, and therefore, has the atomic number eight. The number of protons is always equal to
the number of electrons.
Mass number
The mass number of an atom is simply its atomic number plus the number of neutrons found in its
nucleus. For example, the atomic number of oxygen is 8, and oxygen has 8 neutrons in its
nucleus. Therefore, the mass number of oxygen is 8 + 8 = 16.
It is possible for the same type of atom to have a different number of neutrons. These different
forms of the same atom are known as isotopes, as their mass numbers differ, even though their
atomic number is the same.
This is depicted as the symbol for that element plus the mass number. For example, oxygen has
several isotopes with mass numbers 16, 17, and 18. These are depicted as O-16, O-17, and O-18,
The relative atomic mass of oxygen is based on the average of the masses of the different
isotopes, which is calculated as 15.9994. This number is commonly simplified to the most
prevalent isotope, which in the case of oxygen is 16.