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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:
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.
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).
|Link to a discussion of symbiotic nitrogen fixation in legumes.|
Biological nitrogen fixation requires a complex set of enzymes and a huge expenditure of ATP.Although the first stable product of the process is ammonia, this is quickly incorporated into protein and other organic nitrogen compounds.
Ammonia can be taken up directly by plants — usually through their roots. However, most of the ammonia produced by decay is converted into nitrates. This is accomplished in two steps:
These two groups of autotrophic bacteria are called nitrifying bacteria. Through their activities (which supply them with all their energy needs), nitrogen is made available to the roots of plants.
Both soil and the ocean contain archaeal microbes, assigned to the Crenarchaeota, that convert ammonia to nitrites. They are more abundant than the nitrifying bacteria and may turn out to play an important role in the nitrogen cycle.
Many legumes, in addition to fixing atmospheric nitrogen, also perform nitrification — converting some of their organic nitrogen to nitrites and nitrates. These reach the soil when they shed their leaves.
The three processes above remove nitrogen from the atmosphere and pass it through ecosystems.
Denitrification reduces nitrates to nitrogen gas, thus replenishing the atmosphere.
Once again, bacteria are the agents. 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.
Thus they close the nitrogen cycle.
Are the denitrifiers keeping up the nitrogen cycle in balance? Probably not. Certainly, there are examples of nitrogen enrichment in ecosystems. One troubling example: the "blooms" of algae in lakes and rivers as nitrogen fertilizers leach from the soil of adjacent farms (and lawns). The accumulation of dissolved nutrients in a body of water is called eutrophication.