The Nitrogen Cycle
B io F actsheet
April 1998Number 18
At first glance, it might seem very easy for plants to obtain their nitrogen;the atmosphere contains 78% by volume of nitrogen and this is easily themost abundant gas in the atmosphere. However, atmospheric nitrogen is,in fact, unavailable to plants or animals and only some specialised micro-organisms are able to use this huge potential source. Plants usually obtainthe nitrogen they need by absorbing nitrate ions or ammonium ions throughtheir roots. However some plants obtain much of their nitrogen by forminga symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria.Nitrogenous compounds may be added to the soil through:(i)artificial fertilisers(ii)weathering of rocks(ii)acid rain(v)lightning.Nitrogenous compounds in the soil may be volatilized back into theatmosphere, washed down through the soil (leached) into sub-surfacesupplies, taken up by plants, broken down by micro-organisms such asbacteria, or they may remain fixed in the soil beyond the rooting depth of most plants.The nitrogenous compounds which are taken up by plants are
into nitrogen-containing tissues (eg. lignin) and into molecules such aschlorophyll. Herbivores then obtain their nitrogen by eating plants, andcarnivores obtain their source of nitrogen by eating the herbivores or eachother. Both animal and plants return nitrogen to the soil via their excretoryproducts and when they die and are decomposed. In addition, animalsrelease nitrogenous compounds to the soil through their faeces. Thus, themovement of nitrogen from the atmosphere to soil to plants to animals tosoil and to atmosphere forms a
. We now need to look in more detailat each of these of these individual steps.
1. Nitrogen fixation
Nitrogen fixation is the conversion of nitrogen gas into ammonia (NH
).This is carried out by nitrogen fixing bacteria such as
(the latter in alder trees) as well as somecyanobacteria such as
All living organisms need a source of nitrogen in order to synthesise molecules such as DNA and proteins. This Factsheet willsummarise how plants and animals obtain that nitrogen.
As can be seen from Table 1, some nitrogen fixing species live freely in thesoil. However, most live in a mutually beneficial (mutualistic) relationshipwith a plant. Rhizobium, for example lives freely in most soils where it cancarry out nitrogen fixation. However, most nitrogen fixation by Rhizobiumoccurs inside the roots of legumes such as clover and beans. The invasionof the root hairs by Rhizobium stimulates the root cells to divide and formnodules. Inside the nodules, Rhizobium fixes the nitrogen gas which diffusesin across the root hair. This is achieved using the enzyme
,which only works under anaerobic conditions. Nitrogen fixation requires alot of energy to carry out and this is one reason why only very specialisedorganisms can do it. Because of this, nitrogen in a biologically useful formis often in short supply in ecosystems and is frequently the factor whichlimits overall productivity.
The decomposition of dead plants and animals, and their wastes releasesammonia into the soil. This may then be transformed into nitrite and thennitrate ions by bacteria such as Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter respectively.This process is known as
(Fig 1).Nitrosomonas, Nitrococcus and Nitrobacter are therefore examples of
. Note that these are oxidation reactions and that thesebacteria are using the nitrogen compounds as their source of energy i.e.they are
. Thus, the action of nitrifying bacteria makesnitrate ions available in the soil which can then be absorbed by plant roots.
3. Absorption and assimilation
Nitrates are actively absorbed across root hairs i.e. ATP is required. Nitrateand or ammonium ions are then
by the plant i.e. they are usedto build complex nitrogen-containing substances such as nucleic acids oramino acids, which can then be used to build tissue. If these tissues are theneaten by animals, the complex nitrogenous substances are digested i.e.made into simple soluble molecules which can be absorbed across theanimal’s gut before, in turn, being assimilated into animal tissue.
The cycle would not be complete unless some nitrogen was released back into the atmosphere. This occurs as a result of the actions of
bacteria i.e. bacteria which utilise NO
as an energy source and convert itback into nitrogen gas (Fig 2) or dinitrogen monoxide (N
Name of organism
Rhizobium Azotobacter Clostridium
Where it lives
root nodules of leguminous plantsaerated soilanaerobic soilswetlands
Table 1. Nitrogen-fixing organismsFig 1. Nitrification
Fig 2. Denitrification
eg. Pseudomonas denitrificanseg. Thiobacillus dentrificansNitrogenN