nitrogen cycle

nitrogen cycle
the continuous sequence of events by which atmospheric nitrogen and nitrogenous compounds in the soil are converted, as by nitrification and nitrogen fixation, into substances that can be utilized by green plants, the substances returning to the air and soil as a result of the decay of the plants and denitrification.

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Circulation of nitrogen in various forms throughout nature.

Nitrogen is essential to life, but in the atmosphere it is in a form (the diatomic molecule N2) unavailable to most organisms. Nitrogen fixation by microbes turns this nitrogen into nitrates and other compounds, which plants or algae assimilate into their tissues. Animals that eat plants in turn incorporate the compounds into their own tissues. Microbes decompose the remains and waste of all living things into ammonia (ammonification); the ammonia may leave the soil through vaporization into the air or leaching into water. Ammonia remaining in soil may be transformed by bacteria into nitrates (nitrification), which then can be reassimilated into living organisms, or into free nitrogen (denitrification), which reenters the atmosphere. Hence, once fixed from air, some nitrogen goes through the cycle repeatedly without returning to the gaseous state.

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 circulation of nitrogen in various forms through nature. Nitrogen, a component of proteins and nucleic acids, is essential to life on Earth. Although 78 percent by volume of the atmosphere is nitrogen gas, this abundant reservoir exists in a form unusable by most organisms. Through a series of microbial transformations, however, nitrogen is made available to plants, which in turn ultimately sustain all animal life. The steps, which are not altogether sequential, fall into the following classifications: nitrogen fixation, nitrogen assimilation, ammonification, nitrification, and denitrification.

      Nitrogen fixation, in which nitrogen gas is converted into inorganic nitrogen compounds, is mostly (90 percent) accomplished by certain bacteria and blue-green algae (see nitrogen fixation). A much smaller amount of free nitrogen is fixed by abiotic means (e.g., lightning, ultraviolet radiation, electrical equipment) and by conversion to ammonia through the Haber-Bosch process (q.v.).

      Nitrates and ammonia resulting from nitrogen fixation are assimilated into the specific tissue compounds of algae and higher plants. Animals then ingest these algae and plants, converting them into their own body compounds.

      The remains of all living things—and their waste products—are decomposed by microorganisms in the process of ammonification, which yields ammonia. (Under anaerobic, or oxygen-free, conditions foul-smelling putrefactive products may appear, but they too are converted to ammonia in time.) Ammonia can leave the soil or be converted into other nitrogen compounds, depending in part on soil conditions.

      Nitrification, a process carried out by nitrifying bacteria (nitrifying bacterium) (q.v.), transforms soil ammonia into nitrates, which plants can incorporate into their own tissues.

      Nitrates also are metabolized by denitrifying bacteria (q.v.), which are especially active in water-logged, anaerobic soils. The action of these bacteria tends to deplete soil nitrates, forming free atmospheric nitrogen.

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Universalium. 2010.

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