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Metals and life

Metals play a vital role in the metabolism of plants and animals and, increasingly, in medicine. This module examines the chemistry of the transition metals and outlines the key role they play in living systems, for example in respiration and photosynthesis. It considers how organisms acquire metals, their transport and storage, illustrated by the particular example of iron in the human body. The significant impact of metals in medicine will also be investigated, looking at their role in diagnostic imaging and therapy, as well as the effects of too much metal (metal toxicity) and of metal deficiency.

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OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate-level module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code
Study level
3 10 6
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
See Am I ready?

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What you will study

The module starts with an introduction to the metals essential to life and some of the biological ligands with which they are associated. It then examines the chemistry of the transition metals, some of the metals most key to life, and their aqueous ions and complexes. This introduction to coordination chemistry provides the necessary background to go on to consider how the metals are acquired from the environment, how they are transported and ultimately how they are stored, highlighted in particular with the example of iron in the human body. An introduction to the fascinating field of biomineralisation will be included, looking at the build up of bones and teeth. The module then considers two of the theories that link the many facets of transition-metal chemistry, crystal-field theory and molecular orbital theory, which provide the necessary foundation to understand the roles that metals and their complexes play in living systems. Particular key processes covered include oxygen transport and delivery, photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, electron transport and the biological roles of zinc and cobalt (in vitamin B12). The module concludes by looking at the important roles that metals play in medicine, both in diagnostic imaging and therapy itself, with examples such as platinum anti-cancer drugs, gold and arthritis and vanadium in diabetes care. The areas of metal overdose, toxicity and deficiency will also be considered.

The module aims to develop your:

  • knowledge and understanding of the chemistry of metals and coordination chemistry
  • knowledge and understanding of the roles that metals and their complexes play in living systems
  • abilities in creative thinking, coherent writing and the assembly, organisation and processing of information and data for a given purpose through problem-solving based on these areas of chemistry.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. The module forum will provide continuous study support, and act as a virtual self-help group and enable students to support one another. We will also offer online tutorials, in which you are encouraged to participate.

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs).

The TMAs have a total workload equivalent of two full TMAs.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2014 when it will be available for the last time. 


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
3 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
No residential school


This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from previous studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably with the OU. 

You are advised to prepare yourself for this module by taking our key introductory OU level 1 module, Exploring science (S104), and our OU level 2 module, The molecular world (S205). These will have covered most of the necessary background. You can get an idea of the level required by looking at the S205 study material. Your regional or national centre will be able to tell you where you can see reference copies, or you can buy selected materials from Open University Worldwide Ltd.

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. The Science Faculty has produced a booklet Are You Ready For S347? to help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need a little extra preparation. This can be viewed or printed from the Are you ready for science? website. 

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.

Preparatory work

You may find the following useful as background reading:

D.E. Fenton, Biocoordination Chemistry (1995) (Oxford Chemistry Primer), Oxford University Press

P. Atkins et al, Shriver and Atkins Inorganic Chemistry (2006), Oxford University Press, 4th edition. ISBN-13: 978-0-19-926463-6


Start End England fee Register
25 Oct 2014 Apr 2015 -

Registration now closed

The deadline for financial support applications has now passed

October 2014 is the final start date for this course. For more information, see Future availability.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your annual fees and spreads them out over up to a year, enabling you to pay your fees monthly and walk away with a qualification without any further debt. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in 10 OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Gift vouchers

You can pay for part or all of your tuition fees with OU gift vouchers. Vouchers are currently available in the following denominations, £10, £20, £50 and £100. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. You may, for example wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or request a call back.

Note: Your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is based upon current details for  year 1 August 2014 to 31 July 2015.
This information was provided on 22/10/2014.

What's included

Module books, a website which delivers additional study materials, online resources and forum, other printed materials and DVD

You will need

To engage in the online tutorials you will need a headset with microphone. Broadband internet access is desirable.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module. It includes online activities – you can access using a web browser – and some module software provided on disk.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer running Windows since 2008 you should have no problems completing the computer-based activities.
  • A netbook, tablet or other mobile device is not suitable for this module – check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you have an Apple Mac or Linux computer – please note that you can only use it for this module by running Windows on it using Boot Camp or a similar dual-boot system.

You can also visit the Technical requirements section for further computing information (including details of the support we provide).

If you have a disability

Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader (mathematical and scientific materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way). Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future.

A number of the learning outcomes for the modules are underpinned by concepts that depend on ideas supported by a mixture of complex figures, schematics, tables, mathematical and chemical equations and reaction schemes. Achieving these learning outcomes may be challenging if a student has severe visual impairment. Students concerned about the visual aspects of the module should contact their regional adviser for more information. Students who use specialist hardware and software or those with queries about other additional needs can also contact their adviser for assistance or advice.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.