Many inorganic species are now recognized as being essential for life, including many forms of sulfur, phosphate and numerous classes of metal ions. For example, recent progress in the fields of biochemistry and biology has pointed out the critical importance of sulfur in the biosynthesis of vital cofactors and active sites in proteins, and in the complex reaction mechanisms often involved. Special attention has also been drawn to the diverse roles of alkaline (Na(+), K(+)) and alkaline earth (Mg(2+), Ca(2+)) metal ions in mediating the activity of RNA, proteins and many processes in living cells. While the general effect of these ions in biology is mostly understood, information on their detailed role is deficient. Here the application of softer X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) to probe the local structural and electronic environment of such ions within their biological complexes and during physiological reactions is discussed. In addition, the required experimental set-up and the difficulties associated with conducting softer XAS experiments on biological samples are presented.