Odorless and colorless and tasteless, nitrogen's most important job is keeping plants and animals alive. This gas is crucial to survival on Earth because it helps sustain the metabolic processes that transfer energy in cells possible. Plants at the bottom of the food chain help provide nitrogen for animals and humans who eat the plants.
Feeding the Plants
Unlike humans, plants can make their own food through photosynthesis. This process requires chlorophyll, and nitrogen is one of chlorophyll's major components. In addition to nitrogen, plants need other nutrients that come from water and the soil. When soil doesn't have enough of these nutrients, people can add them to the soil using fertilizer. Plants can get some nitrogen from the air, but rainfall and water don't supply them with much. In addition to keeping plants alive, nitrogen helps them grow faster and remain healthy.
Animals, Plants, and the Nitrogen Cycle
Proteins are essential to animal's life and nitrogen helps create proteins. In addition to eating plants to obtain nitrogen, animals obtain it from eating other animals. Because you are the top of the food chain, you can get your nitrogen by eating plants or animals. When an animal dies, nitrogen compounds in the body's proteins breaks down. Soil bacteria convert these compounds into ammonia which eventually turns back into a nitrogen compounds in the soil. This process forms a nitrogen cycle where plants help give animals nitrogen and animals return it to the plants.
Forms of Nitrogen
Before 1772, people did not know that nitrogen existed. Daniel Rutherford, a physician, discovered it by removing carbon dioxide and oxygen from the air and observing that the remaining gas could not support life or combustion. If you convert nitrogen into a liquid, you'll see that it almost looks like water. Manufacturers use nitrogen to create ammonia, a gas that they can turn into nitrogen fertilizer. Ammonia is also important feed supplement and has uses in the plastic industry.
The Problem with Nitrogen
Excess nitrogen can cause Algae and aquatic plants to grow too rapidly. This growth may be good for those life forms, but it may cause problems for others. Excess growth can clog water intakes, deprive lakes of oxygen and reduce the diversity of plant and animal life in the water. Too much nitrogen can also cause problems in infants who ingest nitrates in drinking water. The U.S. Geological Survey notes that pregnant women and children in Eastern Europe drink bottled water in locations where groundwater nitrogen levels are high.
- North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services: Plant Nutrients
- Nature.com: Biological Nitrogen Fixation | Learn Science At Scitable
- The Nitrogen Cycle; Suzanne Slade
- Los Alamos National Laboratory: Periodic Table of Elements
- U.S. Geological Survey Water Science School: Nitrogen and Water
About the Author
After majoring in physics, Kevin Lee began writing professionally in 1989 when, as a software developer, he also created technical articles for the Johnson Space Center. Today this urban Texas cowboy continues to crank out high-quality software as well as non-technical articles covering a multitude of diverse topics ranging from gaming to current affairs.