Why Do Plants & Animals Need Nitrogen?

By Ethan Shaw
Nitrogen is essential for plant and animal growth and function

Nitrogen is a building-block element both in the atmosphere, where it is the most abundant gas, and in organisms. Its flow through earth’s atmospheric, geological and biological systems—the nitrogen cycle—is one of ecology’s grand choreographies.

Nitrogen's Biological Role

Nitrogen is required by plants and animals for production of proteins and amino acids.

Nitrogen, fundamental for cellular structure, is required by plants and animals for production of proteins and amino acids.

Photosynthesis

One of the components of chlorophyll is nitrogen.

One of the components of chlorophyll, the plant pigment that facilitates photosynthesis, is nitrogen. It plays a role in this immensely important transformation of solar energy.

Availability

Usable nitrogen is a limited commodity.

Although 78 percent of our atmosphere is comprised of nitrogen gas, usable nitrogen is a limited commodity. Most organisms can tap the element for growth and function only when, through a process called nitrogen fixation, it has been converted into ammonia or nitrates.

Nitrogen Fixation

Fixation is accomplished by bacteria in soil.

Fixation accomplished by bacteria in soil—often in symbiotic relationship with fungi and plants—provides the bulk of nitrogen available to the biotic community.

Nitrogen Cycle

Lightning passes nitrogen gas through the atmosphere.

This gas passes through the atmosphere, rocks, lightning, plants and animals, facilitating growth and being liberated by organic waste and decay in a fundamental biogeochemical cycle.

About the Author

Ethan Shaw is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written extensively on outdoor recreation, ecology and earth science for outlets such as Backpacker Magazine, the Bureau of Land Management and Atlas Obscura. Shaw holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.