Water makes up 60-75% of human body weight. A loss of just 4% of total body water leads to dehydration, and a loss of 15% can be fatal. Likewise, a person could survive a month without food but wouldn’t survive 3 days without water. This crucial dependence on water broadly governs all life forms. Clearly water is vital for survival, but what makes it so necessary?

The Molecular Make-up of Water

Many of water’s roles in supporting life are due to its molecular structure and a few special properties. Water is a simple molecule composed of two small, positively charged hydrogen atoms and one large negatively charged oxygen atom. When the hydrogens bind to the oxygen, it creates an asymmetrical molecule with positive charge on one side and negative charge on the other side (Figure 1). This charge differential is called polarity and dictates how water interacts with other molecules.

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Figure 2: Water impacts cell shape. Water creates pressure inside the cell that helps it maintain shape. In the hydrated cell (left), the water pushes outward and the cell maintains a round shape. In the dehydrated cell, there is less water pushing outward so the cell becomes wrinkled.

Water also contributes to the formation of membranes surrounding cells. Every cell on Earth is surrounded by a membrane, most of which are formed by two layers of molecules called phospholipids (Figure 3). The phospholipids, like water, have two distinct components: a polar “head” and a nonpolar “tail.” Due to this, the polar heads interact with water, while the nonpolar tails try to avoid water and interact with each other instead. Seeking these favorable interactions, phospholipids spontaneously form bilayers with the heads facing outward towards the surrounding water and the tails facing inward, excluding water. The bilayer surrounds cells and selectively allows substances like salts and nutrients to enter and exit the cell. The interactions involved in forming the membrane are strong enough that the membranes form spontaneously and aren’t easily disrupted. Without water, cell membranes would lack structure, and without proper membrane structure, cells would be unable to keep important molecules inside the cell and harmful molecules outside the cell.

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Figure 4: Water acts as a buffer by releasing or accepting hydrogen atoms.

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In conclusion, water is vital for all life. Its versatility and adaptability help perform important chemical reactions. Its simple molecular structure helps maintain important shapes for cells’ inner components and outer membrane. No other molecule matches water when it comes to unique properties that support life. Excitingly, researchers continue to establish new properties of water such as additional effects of its asymmetrical structure. Scientists have yet to determine the physiological impacts of these properties. It’s amazing how a simple molecule is universally important for organisms with diverse needs. 

Molly Sargen is a first-year PhD Student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Harvard Medical School.

Dan Utter is a fifth-year PhD student in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. 

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This article is part of our special edition on water. To read more, check out our special edition homepage!