What Does Carbon Do for Human Bodies?

Human beings obtain energy from the carbon in plants.
Human beings obtain energy from the carbon in plants. (Image: Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images)

Carbon is a chemical element that belongs to group 14 on the periodic scale. It is present in a wide variety of compounds and constitutes a major part of both plants and animals. Carbon is the 15th-most plentiful element in the earth’s crust and the second-most abundant element in the human body, after oxygen.

Carbon Overview

The most important aspect of carbon in regard to the human body is that it is vital to life. Carbon makes up a large part of practically every part of the human body. It serves as a bonding agent that facilitates the construction of complex chains of molecules. In this sense, carbon can be thought of as a building block for biological molecules. Without carbon in the body, biological molecules would not be able to bond together. Instead, the body would be a formless heap of lose atoms. This is why human beings are referred to as carbon-based life forms.

The Carbon Cycle

The carbon cycle is the process by which carbon flows in a cycle within an ecosystem. An ecosystem refers to the living and nonliving things in an area. Ecosystems are divided into two major types, aquatic and terrestrial. Both types employ carbon as the basic foundation. This is because the primary producers in both ecosystems are plants or algae. These plants grow by converting the carbon in carbon dioxide into food through the process of photosynthesis. The carbon is stored in plants in the form of energy. Other organisms in the ecosystem, including man, harness this energy by eating plants or organisms that have consumed the plants. When the organisms die, decomposers break them down, releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere.

Carbon Dating

Human beings take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide contains some elements of carbon-12 and carbon-14. Carbon-14 is a radioactive carbon that emits a low level of radiation from inside the body. At the time of death, the level of radiation in the human body starts to drop because carbon-14 no longer is being take in. Over time, traces of radioactive emissions become fainter. The level of emissions allows scientists to approximate how long an organism has been dead. This is called carbon-14 dating.

Carbon Health Effects

Though carbon is important to human beings, it can have negative effects on the body. For instance, charcoal is a form of carbon. Breathing in large quantities of charcoal over a certain period of time can lead to the development of black-lung disease. This effect can be observed in coal miners who are exposed to coal for prolonged periods. Carbon monoxide is another form of carbon that is detrimental to human health. It can lead to dizziness, loss of balance, headaches and death.

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