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Aug 23, 2015

Nitrogen is one of the primary nutrients critical for the survival of all living organisms. It is a necessary component of many biomolecules, including proteins, DNA, and chlorophyll. Although nitrogen is very abundant in the atmosphere as dinitrogen gas (N2), it is largely inaccessible in this form to most organisms, making nitrogen a scarce resource and often limiting primary productivity in many ecosystems. Only when nitrogen is converted from nitrogen gas into ammonia (NH3) does it become available to primary producers, such as plants.

In addition to N2 and NH3, nitrogen exists in many different forms, including both inorganic (e.g., ammonia, nitrate) and organic (e.g., amino and nucleic acids) forms. Thus, nitrogen undergoes many different transformations in the ecosystem, changing from one form to another as organisms use it for growth and, in some cases, energy. The major transformations of nitrogen are nitrogen fixation, nitrification, denitrification, anammox, and ammonification The transformation of nitrogen into its many oxidation states is key to productivity in the biosphere and is highly dependent on the activities of a diverse assemblage of microorganisms, such as bacteria, archaea, and fungi.

The movement of nitrogen between the atmosphere, biosphere, and geosphere in different forms is called the nitrogen cycle ,one of the major biogeochemical cycles. Similar to the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle consists of various reservoirs of nitrogen and processes by which those reservoirs exchange nitrogen



Processes in the nitrogen cycle
Five main processes cycle nitrogen through the biosphere, atmosphere, and geosphere nitrogen fixation, nitrogen uptake through organismal growth, nitrogen mineralization through decay, nitrification, and denitrification. Microorganisms, particularly bacteria, play major roles in all of the principal nitrogen transformations. Because these processes are microbially mediated, or controlled by microorganisms, these nitrogen transformations tend to occur faster than geological processes like plate motion, a very slow, purely physical process that is a part of the carbon cycle. Instead, rates are affected by environmental factors that influence microbial activity, such as temperature, moisture, and resource availability.

Major Transformation in Nitrogen Cycle

Major Transformation in Nitrogen Cycle


1. Nitrogen Fixation


The nitrogen molecule (N2) is quite inert. To break it apart so that its atoms can combine with other atoms requires the input of substantial amounts of energy.
Three processes are responsible for most of the nitrogen fixation in the biosphere:

  • atmospheric fixation by lightning

  • biological fixation by certain microbes — alone or in a symbiotic relationship with some plants and animals

  • industrial fixation

Amospheric Fixation

The enormous energy of lightning breaks nitrogen molecules and enables their atoms to combine with oxygen in the air forming nitrogen oxides. These dissolve in rain, forming nitrates, that are carried to the earth.
Atmospheric nitrogen fixation probably contributes some 5– 8% of the total nitrogen fixed.

Industrial Fixation

Under great pressure, at a temperature of 600°C, and with the use of a catalyst, atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen (usually derived from natural gas or petroleum) can be combined to form ammonia (NH3). Ammonia can be used directly as fertilizer, but most of its is further processed to urea and ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3).

Biological Fixation

The ability to fix nitrogen is found only in certain bacteria and archaea. Some nitrogen-fixing organisms are free-living while others are symbiotic nitrogen-fixers, which require a close association with a host to carry out the process. Most of the symbiotic associations are very specific and have complex mechanisms that help to maintain the symbiosis. For example, root exudates from legume plants (e.g., peas, clover, soybeans) serve as a signal to certain species of Rhizobium, which are nitrogen-fixing bacteria. This signal attracts the bacteria to the roots, and a very complex series of events then occurs to initiate uptake of the bacteria into the root and trigger the process of nitrogen fixation in nodules that form on the roots

2. Nitrification

Nitrification is the process that converts ammonia to nitrite and then to nitrate and is another important step in the global nitrogen cycle. Most nitrification occurs aerobically and is carried out exclusively by prokaryotes. There are two distinct steps of nitrification that are carried out by distinct types of microorganisms. The first step is the oxidation of ammonia to nitrite, which is carried out by microbes known as ammonia-oxidizers. Aerobic ammonia oxidizers convert ammonia to nitrite via the intermediate hydroxylamine, a process that requires two different enzymes, ammonia monooxygenase and hydroxylamine oxidoreductase (Figure 4). The process generates a very small amount of energy relative to many other types of metabolism; as a result, nitrosofiers are notoriously very slow growers. Additionally, aerobic ammonia oxidizers are also autotrophs, fixing carbon dioxide to produce organic carbon, much like photosynthetic organisms, but using ammonia as the energy source instead of light.

3. Denitrification

The three processes above remove nitrogen from the atmosphere and pass it through ecosystems.

Denitrification reduces nitrates and nitrites to nitrogen gas, thus replenishing the atmosphere. In the process several intermediates are formed:

  • nitric oxide (NO)

  • nitrous oxide (N2O)(a greenhouse gas 300 times as potent as CO2)

  • nitrous acid (HONO)

  • In this agents are Bacteria. They live deep in soil and in aquatic sediments where conditions are anaerobic. They use nitrates as an alternative to oxygen for the final electron acceptor in their respiration.

Ecological Implications of Human Alterations to the Nitrogen Cycle

Many human activities have a significant impact on the nitrogen cycle. Burning fossil fuels, application of nitrogen-based fertilizers, and other activities can dramatically increase the amount of biologically available nitrogen in an ecosystem. And because nitrogen availability often limits the primary productivity of many ecosystems, large changes in the availability of nitrogen can lead to severe alterations of the nitrogen cycle in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Industrial nitrogen fixation has increased exponentially since the 1940s, and human activity has doubled the amount of global nitrogen fixation 

In terrestrial ecosystems, the addition of nitrogen can lead to nutrient imbalance in trees, changes in forest health, and declines in biodiversity. With increased nitrogen availability there is often a change in carbon storage, thus impacting more processes than just the nitrogen cycle. In agricultural systems, fertilizers are used extensively to increase plant production, but unused nitrogen, usually in the form of nitrate, can leach out of the soil, enter streams and rivers, and ultimately make its way into our drinking water. The process of making synthetic fertilizers for use in agriculture by causing N2 to react with H2, known as the Haber-Bosch process, has increased significantly over the past several decades. In fact, today, nearly 80% of the nitrogen found in human tissues originated from the Haber-Bosch process 

Much of the nitrogen applied to agricultural and urban areas ultimately enters rivers and near shore coastal systems. In near shore marine systems, increases in nitrogen can often lead to anoxia (no oxygen) or hypoxia (low oxygen), altered biodiversity, changes in food-web structure, and general habitat degradation. One common consequence of increased nitrogen is an increase in harmful algal blooms Toxic blooms of certain types of dinoflagellates have been associated with high fish and shellfish mortality in some areas. Even without such economically catastrophic effects, the addition of nitrogen can lead to changes in biodiversity and species composition that may lead to changes in overall ecosystem function. Some have even suggested that alterations to the nitrogen cycle may lead to an increased risk of parasitic and infectious diseases among humans and wildlife (Johnson et al. 2010). Additionally, increases in nitrogen in aquatic systems can lead to increased acidification in freshwater ecosystems.

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