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Nitrogen Cycle Essay

2508 words - 11 pages

The Nitrogen Cycle: Processes, Players, and Human Impact
Nitrogen is one of the primary nutrients critical for the survival of all living organisms. Although nitrogen is very abundant in the atmosphere, it is largely inaccessible in this form to most organisms. This article explores how nitrogen becomes available to organisms and what changes in nitrogen levels as a result of human activity means to local and global ecosystems.

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 ...view middle of the document...

In fact, some predict that by 2030, the amount of nitrogen fixed by human activities will exceed that fixed by microbial processes (Vitousek 1997). Increases in available nitrogen can alter ecosystems by increasing primary productivity and impacting carbon storage (Galloway et al. 1994). Because of the importance of nitrogen in all ecosystems and the significant impact from human activities, nitrogen and its transformations have received a great deal of attention from ecologists.
Nitrogen Fixation
Nitrogen gas (N2) makes up nearly 80% of the Earth's atmosphere, yet nitrogen is often the nutrient that limits primary production in many ecosystems. Why is this so? Because plants and animals are not able to use nitrogen gas in that form. For nitrogen to be available to make proteins, DNA, and other biologically important compounds, it must first be converted into a different chemical form. The process of converting N2 into biologically available nitrogen is called nitrogen fixation. N2 gas is a very stable compound due to the strength of the triple bond between the nitrogen atoms, and it requires a large amount of energy to break this bond. The whole process requires eight electrons and at least sixteen ATP molecules (Figure 2). As a result, only a select group of prokaryotes are able to carry out this energetically demanding process. Although most nitrogen fixation is carried out by prokaryotes, some nitrogen can be fixed abiotically by lightning or certain industrial processes, including the combustion of fossil fuels.

Figure 2: Chemical reaction of nitrogen fixation
© 2010 Nature Education All rights reserved. 

Figure 3: Nitrogen-fixing nodules on a clover plant root
© 2010 Nature Education All rights reserved. 
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 (Figure 3). 

Some of these bacteria are aerobic, others are anaerobic; some are phototrophic, others are chemotrophic (i.e., they use chemicals as their energy source instead of light) (Table 1). Although there is great physiological and phylogenetic diversity among the organisms that carry out nitrogen fixation, they all have a similar enzyme complex called nitrogenase that catalyzes the reduction of N2 to NH3 (ammonia), which can be used as a genetic marker to identify the potential for nitrogen fixation. One of the characteristics of nitrogenase is that the enzyme...

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