Why Life Depends on Water

Learning Outcomes

Describe the properties of water that are critical to maintaining life

Picture of oil in water.

Figure 1. As this image of oil and water shows, oil is a nonpolar compound and, hence, will not dissolve in water. Oil and water do not mix.

Do you ever wonder why scientists spend time looking for water on other planets? It is because water is essential to life; even minute traces of it on another planet can indicate that life could or did exist on that planet. Water is one of the more abundant molecules in living cells and the one most critical to life as we know it. Approximately 60–70 percent of your body is made up of water. Without it, life simply would not exist.

Water Is Polar

The hydrogen and oxygen atoms within water molecules form polar covalent bonds. The shared electrons spend more time associated with the oxygen atom than they do with hydrogen atoms. There is no overall charge to a water molecule, but there is a slight positive charge on each hydrogen atom and a slight negative charge on the oxygen atom. Because of these charges, the slightly positive hydrogen atoms repel each other and form the unique shape seen in Figure 2. Each water molecule attracts other water molecules because of the positive and negative charges in the different parts of the molecule. Water also attracts other polar molecules (such as sugars), forming hydrogen bonds. When a substance readily forms hydrogen bonds with water, it can dissolve in water and is referred to as hydrophilic (“water-loving”). Hydrogen bonds are not readily formed with nonpolar substances like oils and fats (Figure 1). These nonpolar compounds are hydrophobic (“water-fearing”) and will not dissolve in water.

Diagram showing hydrogen bonds formed between adjacent water molecules. In a single water molecule, two hydrogen atoms are bound to an oxygen atom with a covalent bond. Adjacent water molecules are bound together with weak hydrogen bonds, where hydrogen atoms of water molecules bind together with the oxygen atom of another water molecule.

Figure 2. Hydrogen bonds form between slightly positive (δ+) and slightly negative (δ–) charges of polar covalent molecules, such as water.

Water Stabilizes Temperature

The hydrogen bonds in water allow it to absorb and release heat energy more slowly than many other substances. Temperature is a measure of the motion (kinetic energy) of molecules. As the motion increases, energy is higher and thus temperature is higher. Water absorbs a great deal of energy before its temperature rises. Increased energy disrupts the hydrogen bonds between water molecules. Because these bonds can be created and disrupted rapidly, water absorbs an increase in energy and temperature changes only minimally. This means that water moderates temperature changes within organisms and in their environments. As energy input continues, the balance between hydrogen-bond formation and destruction swings toward the destruction side. More bonds are broken than are formed. This process results in the release of individual water molecules at the surface of the liquid (such as a body of water, the leaves of a plant, or the skin of an organism) in a process called evaporation. Evaporation of sweat, which is 90 percent water, allows for cooling of an organism, because breaking hydrogen bonds requires an input of energy and takes heat away from the body.

Conversely, as molecular motion decreases and temperatures drop, less energy is present to break the hydrogen bonds between water molecules. These bonds remain intact and begin to form a rigid, lattice-like structure (e.g., ice) (Figure 3a). When frozen, ice is less dense than liquid water (the molecules are farther apart). This means that ice floats on the surface of a body of water (Figure 3b). In lakes, ponds, and oceans, ice will form on the surface of the water, creating an insulating barrier to protect the animal and plant life beneath from freezing in the water. If this did not happen, plants and animals living in water would freeze in a block of ice and could not move freely, making life in cold temperatures difficult or impossible.

Part A shows the lattice-like molecular structure of ice. Part B is a photo of ice on water.

Figure 3. (a) The lattice structure of ice makes it less dense than the freely flowing molecules of liquid water. Ice’s lower density enables it to (b) float on water. (credit a: modification of work by Jane Whitney; credit b: modification of work by Carlos Ponte)

Water Is an Excellent Solvent

Because water is polar, with slight positive and negative charges, ionic compounds and polar molecules can readily dissolve in it. Water is, therefore, what is referred to as a solvent—a substance capable of dissolving another substance. The charged particles will form hydrogen bonds with a surrounding layer of water molecules. This is referred to as a sphere of hydration and serves to keep the particles separated or dispersed in the water. In the case of table salt (NaCl) mixed in water (Figure 4), the sodium and chloride ions separate, or dissociate, in the water, and spheres of hydration are formed around the ions.

Illustration of spheres of hydration around sodium and chlorine ions.

Figure 4. When table salt (NaCl) is mixed in water, spheres of hydration form around the ions.

A positively charged sodium ion is surrounded by the partially negative charges of oxygen atoms in water molecules. A negatively charged chloride ion is surrounded by the partially positive charges of hydrogen atoms in water molecules. These spheres of hydration are also referred to as hydration shells. The polarity of the water molecule makes it an effective solvent and is important in its many roles in living systems.

Water Is Cohesive

Picture of a needle floating on top of water because of cohesion and surface tension.

Figure 5. The weight of a needle on top of water pulls the surface tension downward; at the same time, the surface tension of the water is pulling it up, suspending the needle on the surface of the water and keeping it from sinking. Notice the indentation in the water around the needle. (credit: Cory Zanker)

Have you ever filled up a glass of water to the very top and then slowly added a few more drops? Before it overflows, the water actually forms a dome-like shape above the rim of the glass. This water can stay above the glass because of the property of cohesion. In cohesion, water molecules are attracted to each other (because of hydrogen bonding), keeping the molecules together at the liquid-air (gas) interface, although there is no more room in the glass. Cohesion gives rise to surface tension, the capacity of a substance to withstand rupture when placed under tension or stress. When you drop a small scrap of paper onto a droplet of water, the paper floats on top of the water droplet, although the object is denser (heavier) than the water. This occurs because of the surface tension that is created by the water molecules. Cohesion and surface tension keep the water molecules intact and the item floating on the top. It is even possible to “float” a steel needle on top of a glass of water if you place it gently, without breaking the surface tension (Figure 5).

These cohesive forces are also related to the water’s property of adhesion, or the attraction between water molecules and other molecules. This is observed when water “climbs” up a straw placed in a glass of water. You will notice that the water appears to be higher on the sides of the straw than in the middle. This is because the water molecules are attracted to the straw and therefore adhere to it.

Cohesive and adhesive forces are important for sustaining life. For example, because of these forces, water can flow up from the roots to the tops of plants to feed the plant.

Video Review

Practice Question

Which of the following statements is not true?

  1. Water is polar.
  2. Water stabilizes temperature.
  3. Water is essential for life.
  4. Water is the most abundant atom in Earth’s atmosphere.