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a black ball with four sticks coming out of it and each one ending in a white ball: a methane molecule model

A model of a methane molecule

Hydrocarbons are molecules made out of hydrogen atoms and carbon atoms. Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon molecule: just one carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms stuck to it.

Because both carbon and hydrogen were common in nebulae, hydrocarbon molecules are very common in space. Many of these molecules are small, like methane, but others are very big, involving hundreds of atoms. One of the interesting things about carbon is that it can easily make itself into long chains of carbon atoms. So it’s easy to build big molecules using carbon as a building block.

lumps of coal - look like black rocks

Lumps of coal

Out in space, the biggest hydrocarbon molecules are amino acids. But here on Earth, those amino acids hooked up with each other to make protein molecules. One protein molecule can include hundreds of amino acids in various combinations.

All living cells are made out of those protein molecules, so all living cells are made out of hydrocarbons: your body, fish, sweet potatoes, trees, cheese, seaweed. Anything that was once alive is also made of hydrocarbons. That includes things like oil (made out of plants that died billions of years ago), gasoline and plastic (made out of oil), rubber, wood, food, alcohol, and many medicines like antibiotics.

More about organic chemistry

Bibliography and further reading about organic chemistry:

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