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To really understand why iron is important in the human body, we have to review several scientific concepts. 

Atom Theory

We learn at secondary school that everything is made up of atoms too small to see.

Scientists believe for example that when we look at a tree, if we have a strong enough microscope, we would see lots of tiny atoms all joined together making up the tree.

Each atom has a nucleus and electrons that orbit around this nucleus.

An atom: electrons orbiting a central nucleus.
Diagrm based on work by Ahnode (Wikipedia Commons)

The human body is made up of lots of these atoms, working together as cells.


Cells in the body

Scientists generally think of the smallest building block of the human body as a cell. Organs and body tissues are made up of lots of cells.

A cell is an intricate living system, made up of lots of atoms.
Diagram: Mariana Ruiz

For the body to work properly, each of these cells has a specific job to do- individually, as part of a body organ and as part of the whole body.

Cells use nutrients such as glucose (a sugar from food that we eat) to create energy for our lungs to breathe in and out, our heart to pump blood around the body and for growth.

The process cells use to make this energy is called cell respiration.


Cell Respiration

Cell respiration is a series of complex reactions and processes that result in the production of cell energy (2880 kJ of energy per mole of glucose).

Oxidation and reduction reactions are part of this reaction series, meaning that electrons are moved between reactants.

Molecular oxygen (O2) is used as an oxidant (meaning that it will remove electrons from glucose) to start these reactions.

Cell respiration: a chemical equation

The waste products of cell respiration are gaseous carbon dioxide (CO2) and water.


Atoms in the body

The human body is made up of several different types of atoms. The main atoms are Oxygen (65%), Carbon (18%), Hydrogen (10%) and Nitrogen (3%).

These make up the cells in the body. You may notice that this only adds up to 96%. Minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, iron and copper make up the remaining 4% of the body.

These minerals have key roles to play in helping cells to function properly.

An average 75kg adult may only have 6g of Iron (chemical symbol Fe) in the body. Is something we have so little of in our body really important for it to function correctly?


Iron Uses

Iron (Fe) is an important part of our world.

Fe is essential for life and plays critical roles in several cellular processes, including DNA replication and oxygen transport.

Fe is also a crucial player in infection.

Without iron, cells would not be able to replicate, meaning that we couldn’t grow. Nor would cells be able to produce energy for the body.