Almost 80% of our atmosphere is nitrogen, but we can’t use it. We will look at how this unusable nitrogen is converted into a form we can use and why nitrogen is important to plants and humans.
You may have learned about the water cycle or the carbon cycle before.
These cycles move substances – water or carbon – throughout the environment and organisms living there. The process is fairly simple. However, the movement of nitrogen through living and nonliving things is a bit more complex.
The nitrogen cycle is more complex than other biogeochemical cycles because most organisms cannot use the nitrogen found in the atmosphere – even though almost 80% of the air is nitrogen! In the atmosphere, nitrogen is found as N2. This N2 is not usable by most plants and animals. In order for plants and humans to get the nitrogen they need, the nitrogen must be converted into ammonia – NH3. The conversion of this atmospheric nitrogen to the usable form of ammonia is known as nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen fixation can be defined as the process of creating ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. Without this process, most plants and animals would not have the nitrogen needed to live.
Most commonly, nitrogen fixation is carried out by bacteria.
Now, this isn’t all bacteria, but some specific forms. You may think of the bacteria that get you sick, but the bacteria that make ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen are found near plant roots and won’t make you sick.This nitrogen-fixing bacteria is most commonly found near the roots of legumes. Legumes are plants such as soybeans and garden peas. The bacteria and the plants have a relationship that is beneficial for both. You may remember from ecology that when two species live together, it’s known as symbiosis. There are several types of this close, long-term interaction between two different species.
In the case of nitrogen-fixing bacteria and legumes, both species benefit from the interaction, meaning that it is mutualism. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria benefit because they have a safe place to live amongst the roots of the plants, and the legumes benefit because they basically have an unlimited source of useable nitrogen. The plant does use some energy in order to provide a good home for the bacteria, but this expense is well worth it for the plant because of the nitrogen produced by the bacteria.The specific name of bacteria found in most legumes is Rhizobium bacteria.
The bacteria contain a specific enzyme – nitrogenase – that breaks the bonds between the atmospheric nitrogen. Once the bonds are broken, the bacteria can then ‘fix’ the nitrogen into ammonia. The plants – and then animals – can then use this fixed form of nitrogen.
Significance of Nitrogen to Plants
Now that we know that nitrogen-fixing bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, we need to look at why this matters. So what if plants can’t use the nitrogen in the air? What do they really need nitrogen for anyway?We know that plants need elements such as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen for photosynthesis, but nitrogen is actually also needed for this process as well.
Chlorophyll, the green pigment found in the chloroplasts of plant cells, is responsible for photosynthesis. One of the elements that helps make chlorophyll is nitrogen. Without nitrogen, plants would not be able to perform photosynthesis.
Plants also need nitrogen because it is found in all living cells.
Having the proper amount of nitrogen helps with plant growth. Plants that have the right amount of nitrogen will have more seed and fruit production than those plants that do not have enough nitrogen. This nutrient also improves the quality of the leaves.Lastly, plants need nitrogen specifically for proteins. Proteins are molecules that are responsible for many life processes.
In plants, proteins can be used as enzymes – which help control the rate of reactions and control metabolic activities.If plants do not have enough nitrogen, they will not be able to function properly. Because of this, nitrogen is found in many fertilizers. You may have seen ads for fertilizers that show plants that were given the fertilizer and plants that were not given the fertilizer.
Generally, the plants that receive the fertilizer – and therefore plenty of nitrogen – have much bigger and more vibrant flowers than the ones that did not get this nutrient boost.
Significance to Humans
Plants are not the only living things that need nitrogen in order to survive; animals do as well. We will look at why humans need nitrogen. We know that humans get nitrogen by consuming food – such as plants – that contain nitrogen.
When we eat meat, we are getting nitrogen from the plants that were eaten by that animal. We already know that all cells contain nitrogen, but why else do humans need this element?Humans need nitrogen in order to make proteins. Proteins are made of smaller units called amino acids.
Nitrogen is an essential part of amino acids – and therefore proteins. Examples of proteins in humans can be found in muscles, hair, skin, blood and nails. Nitrogen is also an important component of DNA – which contains our genetic information.
Much like in plants, proteins can help control metabolic activity in humans. Enzymes are also found in humans and help regulate the rate of reactions.
Proteins are also needed for growth, immune function, tissue repair and even making hormones.
Even though almost 80% of our atmosphere is nitrogen, most plants and animals cannot use this atmospheric nitrogen. In order for us to be able to use this nitrogen, it must first be fixed. Nitrogen fixation is the process of creating ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. This process is carried out by specific bacteria that are found near legumes like soybeans and garden peas. The relationship between the bacteria and the legumes is mutualistic, meaning that both organisms benefit.Plants and humans need nitrogen for countless reasons.
Specifically, plants need nitrogen because it is a component of chlorophyll, which is the green pigment responsible for photosynthesis. Plants also require nitrogen for proper growth and development. Humans need nitrogen for proteins and DNA. Without nitrogen-fixing bacteria, humans and plants would not be able to access the nitrogen around us.
After viewing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the role nitrogen fixation plays in distributing atmospheric nitrogen to life on the planet
- Identify ways humans and plants use nitrogen
- Explain the mutualistic relationship between bacteria and legumes