Why Is Nitrogen Important for Living Things?

By Lesley Barker; Updated April 24, 2017
Nitrogen is the single most important element for plant growth.

Life depends on nitrogen, which is a basic ingredient in amino acids that make up all proteins. While a substantial percentage of the atmosphere is comprised of nitrogen gas, it must be processed into a soluble form. This is done via a nitrogen cycle that occurs in the soil. Then plants and the animals that eat them can obtain dietary nitrogen.


Seventy-eight percent of the Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen. This element, symbolized by the letter N, was discovered in 1772 by the Scot Daniel Rutherford. Nitrogen makes up 7 percent of the protein found in cereals. It causes green plants to produce healthy leaves that are strong enough to withstand a heavy wind or a frost.


Plants with nitrogen deficiencies look weak. The leaves, which should be healthy and green, may look wilted and yellow. Animals and people get dietary nitrogen by eating protein-rich foods like milk, eggs, fish, beef and legumes. Nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are found in amino acids, which are the main structures of every protein.


Though 78 percent of the atmosphere is made of inert nitrogen, it must be transformed into a form that can be used by plants and animals. This happens via a nitrogen cycle that occurs in the soil. Earthworms, bacteria and other forces break down the proteins in organic material and animal manure in the soil to decompose them. The first byproduct is ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. Next, nitrates are formed. Nitrobacteria called azotobactors produce soluble nitrates that plants can get out of the soil.


Nitrogen can also enter the soil directly from the atmosphere via the rhizobium bacteria in the roots of legumes, or during a heavy rain, when it mixes with water to become nitric acid. Chemical fertilizers are another way to put nitrogen into the soil, but these can cause pollution or even nitrate poisoning in cattle. Organic sources of nitrogen fertilizer are rabbit droppings, cottonseed meal and feather meal.


Digesting protein-rich food produces amino-acid nitrogen, which is a waste product the body must eliminate through reactions called transanimations. Most of this excess nitrogen is excreted in the form of urea.

About the Author

Lesley Barker, director of the Bolduc House Museum, authored the books "St. Louis Gateway Rail—The 1970s," published by Arcadia, and the "Eye Can Too! Read" series of vision-related e-books. Her articles have appeared in print and online since the 1980s. Barker holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from Washington University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Webster University.