The nitrogen cycle is the biogeochemical cycle by which nitrogen is converted into multiple chemical forms as it circulates among the atmosphere, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems. The conversion of nitrogen can be carried out through both biological and physical processes. It involves several processes such as nitrogen fixation, nitrification, denitrification, decay, and putrefaction.
Nitrogen gas exists in both organic and inorganic forms. Organic nitrogen exists in living organisms, and it gets passed through the food chain by the consumption of other living organisms. Inorganic forms of nitrogen are found in abundance in the atmosphere. This nitrogen is made available to plants by symbiotic bacteria which can convert the inert nitrogen into a usable form – such as nitrites and nitrates.
Stages of Nitrogen Cycle
The process of the Nitrogen Cycle consists of the following steps – Nitrogen fixation, Nitrification, Assimilation, Ammonification, and Denitrification. These processes take place in several stages and are explained below:
- Nitrogen Fixation: It is the initial step of the nitrogen cycle. It can occur either by atmospheric fixation- which involves lightening or industrial fixation by manufacturing ammonia under high temperature and pressure conditions. This can also be fixed through man-made processes, primarily industrial processes that create ammonia and nitrogen-rich fertilizers.
- Nitrification: In this process, the ammonia is converted into nitrate by the presence of bacteria in the soil. Nitrites are formed by the oxidation of Ammonia with the help of Nitrosomonas bacterium species. Later, the produced nitrites are converted into nitrates by Nitrobacter. This conversion is very important as ammonia gas is toxic for plants.
The reaction involved in the process of Nitrification is as follows:
2NH4+ + 3O2 → 2NO2– + 4H+ + 2H2O
2NO2– + O2 → 2NO3–
- Assimilation: Primary producers – plants take in the nitrogen compounds from the soil with the help of their roots, which are available in the form of ammonia, nitrite ions, nitrate ions, or ammonium ions and are used in the formation of the plant and animal proteins. This way, it enters the food web when the primary consumers eat the plants.
- Ammonification: When plants or animals die, the nitrogen present in the organic matter is released back into the soil. The decomposers, namely bacteria or fungi present in the soil, convert the organic matter back into ammonium. This process of decomposition produces ammonia, which is further used for other biological processes.
- Denitrification: Denitrification is the process in which the nitrogen compounds make their way back into the atmosphere by converting nitrate (NO3-) into gaseous nitrogen (N). This process of the nitrogen cycle is the final stage and occurs in the absence of oxygen. Denitrification is carried out by the denitrifying bacterial species- Clostridium and Pseudomonas, which will process nitrate to gain oxygen and give out free nitrogen gas as a byproduct.
Importance of Nitrogen Cycle
- Helps plants to synthesize chlorophyll from the nitrogen compounds.
- Helps in converting inert nitrogen gas into a usable form for the plants through the biochemical process.
- In the process of ammonification, the bacteria help in decomposing the animal and plant matter, which indirectly helps to clean up the environment.
- Nitrates and nitrites are released into the soil, which helps in enriching the soil with the necessary nutrients required for cultivation.
- Nitrogen is an integral component of the cell and it forms many crucial compounds and important biomolecules.