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The Nitrogen Cycle


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Pro. Monika Koul

Hetashri r. kalyani
Masters of landscape architecture 2015-17
1st year, 2nd semester

The Nitrogen Cycle

The biogeochemical nitrogen cycle is complex cycle. Although abundant on earth, 96 per cent is found in the
lithosphere and does not take part in the biogeochemical cycle. In terrestrial systems, only four per cent of the nitrogen
occurs in biomass, while 96 per cent is found mainly in soil organic matter.
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient but nitrogen compounds are also potential toxicants. The hazard of unwanted side
effects is increasing, i.e. through the increased use of nitrogen fertilizers. By the end of this century, man-made
additions of combined nitrogen to terrestrial ecosystems will be as large as the amount added through biological
nitrogen fixation.
An understanding of the individual processes of the nitrogen biogeochemical cycle is needed before attempts can be
made to quantify the nitrogen cycle of eco- systems, regions, or the earth.
The nitrogen cycle in an ecosystem is an important characteristic. The pattern of nitrogen cycling changes as an
ecosystem develops to its climax state, and it is also affected by disturbances such as management practices.
A quantification and understanding of the nitrogen cycle in various types of typical ecosystem of the world will offer us
the jigsaw pieces needed to construct an authoritative picture of the global nitrogen cycle, intrinsically linked to other
major elements such as carbon, phosphorus and sulphur.

Nitrogen is an element which is abundant on earth, but only a very small proportion of it enters into the biogeochemical
nitrogen cycle at significant rates. Of the nitrogen found on earth, only 0.001 per cent occurs in the biosphere. Most of
the nitrogen is thus found in the lithosphere (especially in primary rocks of the mantle). The atmosphere, where nitrogen
occurs abundantly in its molecular form, still only contains six per cent of all nitro- gen on earth. Of all nitrogen taking
part in the biogeochemical nitrogen cycle only 0.04 per cent occurs in compounds potentially available to living
organisms. In the terrestrial system only four per cent occurs in biomass, the remainder forming a large reservoir as dead
organic matter (96 per cent). The unavailability of the 99.96 per cent occurring as nitrogen gas, combined with the major
role played by nitrogen-containing substances in all forms of life, has caused nitrogen to be one of the key elements
limiting the primary production on which man depends for his supply of food, fodder, fiber, and fuel.
The nitrogen cycle is easily manipulated by man, and it has been estimated that, by the end of this century, man-made
additions of combined nitrogen will equal the amounts fixed annually through biological nitrogen fixation. This
increased addition from fertilizers, together with nitrogen oxides emitted into the atmosphere as a result of combustion,
is undesirable since nitrogen compounds are a direct environmental hazard.

Ammonium is liberated through mineralization, mainly by micro organisms, from organic compounds. Immobilization
is the opposite process, whereby inorganic nitrogen is assimilated and built up into organic compounds. For soil
microorganisms, the balance between mineralization and immobilization of ammonium nitrogen, i.e. positive or
negative nitrogen net mineralization, is regulated primarily by the C/N ratio of the substrate (parnas, 1975, 1976).
Microbial biomass in soil has been estimated to contain four per cent nitrogen (Rosswall, 1976), and if the carbon
content is 50 per cent, the microbial biomass has a C/N ratio of 12.5. When an organic substrate is broken down by
micro organisms, the quality of the substrate will determine the relative proportion of carbon assimilated and respired. If
the assimilatory efficiency is 40 per cent (Heal and Maclean, 1975), no net mineralization will occur if the C/N ratio is
above 31. There are, however, very few data available on the assimilatory efficiency of micro organisms growing in
soil, and this efficiency is very critical in determining the C/N ratio below which net mineralization occurs. However,
one cannot judge the mineralization capacities of soils from their C/N ratios alone. In systems, which accumulated
organic matter, the C/N ratio is generally about 30 (parsons and Tinsley, 1975). In tundra peat it has been observed to be
as high as 48 in the top 10 cm (Rosswallet al., 1975), where most of the net mineralization occurs. Scots pine needle
litter from a coniferous forest on glacial sediment in central Sweden originally had a C/N ratio as high as 120, where- as
at the time when net mineralization started it was 80 (Staaf and Berg, 1977). If microbial biomass contains four per cent
N, carbon/nitrogen ratios of 48 and 120 would require assimilatory efficiencies as low as 23 and 10 per cent respectively
for net mineralization to occur.
One of the main difficulties in using such a crude concept as the C/N ratio of the substrate for determining whether
mineralization or immobilization occurs relates to the forms of nitrogen in organic matter. Part of the nitrogen,
especially that bound in proteins, is often easily mineralized, but another part, bound to the lignin fraction, is very
resistant to mineralization. Such differences must be kept in mind in any attempt to describe net nitrogen mineralization.
Soil animals may play an important role in regulating nitrogen mineralization in at least two ways. The effect of faunal
grazing on micro organisms may increase mineralization rates (Rosswall et aI., 1977; Coleman et al., 1977). It also
seems that soil invertebrates may play an important role through their excretion of significant amounts of simple
nitrogenous substances, such as uric acids, urea, and also ammonia . They may thus playa more important role in
nitrogen mineralization than hitherto assumed.

The dependence of net mineralization versus immobilization on the carbon/nitrogen ratio of the substrate, the
assimilatory efficiency of the decom- posers (F), and the nitrogen content of microbial biomass (fn)

Nitrogen Fixation
Nitrogen Fixation is the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into reactive compounds such as ammonia (NH3) and
nitrate (NO3-). The breaking of the bonds between the nitrogen atoms requires a great deal of energy and occurs
naturally in two primary ways:
1. Abiotic Fixation: Nitrate is the result of high energy fixation in the atmosphere from lightning and cosmic radiation.
In this process, N2 is combined with oxygen to form nitrogen oxides such as NO and NO2, which are carried to the
earths surface in rainfall as nitric acid (HNO3). This high energy fixation accounts for approximately 10% of the nitrate
entering the nitrogen cycle.
2. Biological fixation: Biological fixation is accomplished by a series of soil micro-organisms such as aerobic and
anaerobic bacteria. Often, symbiotic bacteria such as Rhizobium are found in the roots of legumes and provide a direct
source of ammonia to the plants. In root nodules of these legumes, the bacteria split molecular nitrogen into two free
nitrogen atoms, which combine with hydrogen to form ammonia (NH3). The following plants are common examples of
legumes: clover, alfalfa, soy beans, and chick peas. The breakdown of these legumes by bacteria during ammonification
actually returns excess nitrogen not utilized by the plant to the surrounding soil. Therefore, to promote sustainable soil
fertility, it is beneficial to use these agricultural crops in rotation with other plants, such as corn, that are more profitable
but deplete the available nitrogen in the soil-Some free-living aerobic bacteria, such as Azotobacter, and anaerobic
bacteria, like Clostridium, freely fix nitrogen in the soil and in aquatic environments. Some members of the
photosynthetic Cyanobacteria phylum fix nitrogen in aquatic environments as well.

Nitrates are the form of nitrogen most commonly assimilated by plants through root hairs. Since heterotrophic
organisms cannot readily absorb nitrogen as plants do, they rely on acquiring nitrogen-based compounds through the
food they eat. Since plants are the base of the food chain, the nitrogen-based compounds they have assimilated into their

tissue will continue to pass from one organism to another (through consumption) as matter and energy transfers through
the ecosystems food web.

Amino acids released during proteolysis undergo deamination in which nitrogen containing amino (-NH2) group is
removed. Thus, process of deamination which leads to the production of ammonia is termed as "ammonification". The
process of ammonification is mediated by several soil microorganisms. Ammonification usually occurs under aerobic
conditions (known as oxidative deamination) with the liberation of ammonia (NH3) or ammonium ions (NH4) which
are either released to the atmosphere or utilized by plants ( paddy) and microorganisms or still under favorable soil
conditions oxidized to form nitrites and then to nitrates.
The processes of ammonification are commonly brought about by Clostridium sp, Micrococcus sp, Proteus sp. etc. and
it is represented as follows.
CH3 CHNH2 COOH + 1/2 O2 -----------------> C H3COCOOH


Pyruvic acid


Ammonical nitrogen / ammonia released during ammonification are oxidized to nitrates and the process is called
nitrification. Soil conditions such as well aerated soils rich in calcium carbonate, a temperature below 30 C, neutral
PH and less organic matter are favorable for nitrification in soil.
Nitrification is a two stage process and each stage is performed by a different group of bacteria as follows.
Stage I: Oxidation of ammonia of nitrite is brought about by ammonia oxidizing bacteria viz. Nitrosomnonas europaea,
Nitrosococcus nitrosus, Nitrosospira briensis, Nitrosovibrio and Nitrocystis and the process is known as nitrosification.
The reaction is presented as follows.
2 NH3 + 1/2O2 -------------------> NO2 + 2 H + H2 O
Stage II: In the second step nitrite is oxidized to nitrate by nitrite-oxidizing bacteria such as Nitrobacter winogradsky
.Nitrospira gracilis, Nirosococcus mobiiis etc, and several fungi (eg. Penicillium, Aspergillus) and actinomycetes (eg.
Streptomyces, Nocardia).
NO2 (-) + O2 ----------------------> NO3
Nitrite ions
Nitrate ions
The nitrate thus, formed may be utilized by the microorganisms, assimilated by plants, reduced to nitrite and ammonia
or nitrogen gas or lost through leaching depending on soil conditions. The nitrifying bacteria (ammonia oxidizer and
nitrite oxidizer) are aerobic gram-negative and chemoautotrophic and are the common inhabitants of soil, sewage and
aquatic environment.

Nitrate Reduction
Several heterotrophic bacteria (E. coli, Azospirillum) are capable of converting nitrates to nitrites and nitrites to
ammonia. Thus, the process of nitrification is reversed completely which is known as nitrate reduction. Nitrate reduction
normally occurs under anaerobic soil conditions (water logged soils) and the overall process is as follows:
HNO3 + 4 H2 --------------------> NH4 + 3 H20
Nitrate reduction leading to production of ammonia is called "dissimilatory nitrate reduction" as some of the
microorganisms assimilate ammonium for synthesis of proteins and amino acid.

This is the reverse process of nitrification. During denitrification nitrates are reduced to nitrites and then to nitrogen gas
and ammonia. Thus, reduction of nitrates to gaseous nitrogen by microorganisms in a series of biochemical reactions is

called denitrification". The process is wasteful as available nitrogen in soil is lost to atmosphere. The overall process of
denitrification is as follows:
Nitrate -----> Nitrite ----> Nitric Oxide ----> Nitrous Oxide ------> Nitrogen gas
This process also called dissimilatory nitrate reduction as nitrate nitrogen is completely lost into atmospheric air. In the
soils with high organic matter and anaerobic soil conditions (waterlogged or ill-drained) rate of denitrification is more.
Thus, rice / paddy fields are more prone to denitrification.
The most important denitrifying bacteria are Thiobacillus denitrificans, Micrococcus denitrificans, and species of
Pseudomonas, Bacillus, Achromobacter, Serrtatia paracoccus etc.
Denitrification leads to the loss of nitrogen (nitrate nitrogen) from the soil which results into the depletion of an
essential nutrient for plant growth and therefore, it is an undesirable process / reaction from the soil fertility and
agricultural productivity. Although, denitrification is an undesirable reaction from agricultural productivity, but it is of
major ecological importance since, without denitrification the supply of nitrogen including N2 of the atmosphere, would
have not got depleted and No3 (which are toxic) would have accumulated in the soil and water.

Anaerobic ammonia oxidation

In this biological process, nitrite and ammonia are converted directly into molecular nitrogen (N2) gas. This process
makes up a major proportion of nitrogen conversion in the oceans. The balanced formula for this "anammox" chemical
reaction is: NH4+ + NO2- => N2 + 2H2O (G = -357 kJ mol-1).

Other processes
Though nitrogen fixation is the primary source of plant-available nitrogen in most ecosystems, in areas with
nitrogen-rich bedrock, the breakdown of this rock also serves as a nitrogen source.


A schematic representing the Marine Nitrogen Cycle

The nitrogen cycle is an important process in the ocean as well. While the overall cycle is similar, there are different
players and modes of transfer for nitrogen in the ocean. Nitrogen enters the water through precipitation, runoff, or as N2
from the atmosphere. Nitrogen cannot be utilized by phytoplankton as N2 so it must undergo nitrogen fixation which is
performed predominately by cyanobacteria.[15] Without supplies of fixed nitrogen entering the marine cycle the fixed
nitrogen would be used up in about 2000 years.[16] Phytoplankton need nitrogen in biologically available forms for the
initial synthesis of organic matter. Ammonia and urea are released into the water by excretion from plankton. Nitrogen
sources are removed from the euphotic zone by the downward movement of the organic matter. This can occur from
sinking of phytoplankton, vertical mixing, or sinking of waste of vertical migrators. The sinking results in ammonia
being introduced at lower depths below the euphotic zone. Bacteria are able to convert ammonia to nitrite and nitrate but
they are inhibited by light so this must occur below the euphotic zone.[17] Ammonification or Mineralization is
performed by bacteria to convert organic nitrogen to ammonia. Nitrification can then occur to convert the ammonium to
nitrite and nitrate. Nitrate can be returned to the euphotic zone by vertical mixing and upwelling where it can be taken
up by phytoplankton to continue the cycle. N2 can be returned to the atmosphere through denitrification.
Ammonium is thought to be the preferred source of fixed nitrogen for phytoplankton because its assimilation does not
involve a redox reaction and therefore requires little energy. Nitrate requires a redox reaction for assimilation, but is
more abundant so most phytoplankton have adapted to have the enzymes necessary to undertake this reduction (nitrate
reductase). There are a few notable and well-known exceptions that include Prochlorococcus and some
Synechococcus.[16] These species can only take up nitrogen as ammonium.
The nutrients in the ocean are not uniformly distributed. Areas of upwelling provide supplies of nitrogen from below the
euphotic zone. Coastal zones provide nitrogen from runoff and upwelling occurs readily along the coast. However, the
rate at which nitrogen can be taken up by phytoplankton is decreased in oligotrophic waters year-round and temperate
water in the summer resulting in lower primary production.[19] The distribution of the different forms of nitrogen varies
throughout the oceans as well.
Nitrate is depleted in near-surface water except in upwelling regions. Coastal upwelling regions usually have high
nitrate and chlorophyll levels as a result of the increased production. However, there are regions of high surface nitrate
but low chlorophyll that are referred to as HNLC (high nitrogen, low chlorophyll) regions. The best explanation for
HNLC regions relates to iron scarcity in the ocean, which may play an important part in ocean dynamics and nutrient
cycles. The input of iron varies by region and is delivered to the ocean by dust (from dust storms) and leached out of
rocks. Iron is under consideration as the true limiting element to ecosystem productivity in the ocean.
Ammonium and nitrite show a maximum concentration at 5080 m (lower end of the euphotic zone) with decreasing
concentration below that depth. This distribution can be accounted for by the fact that nitrite and ammonium are
intermediate species. They are both rapidly produced and consumed through the water column.[16] The amount of
ammonium in the ocean is about 3 orders of magnitude less than nitrate.[16] Between ammonium, nitrite, and nitrate,
nitrite has the fastest turnover rate. It can be produced during nitrate assimilation, nitrification, and denitrification;
however, it is immediately consumed again.

Human influences on the nitrogen cycle

As a result of extensive cultivation of legumes (particularly soy, alfalfa, and clover), growing use of the HaberBosch
process in the creation of chemical fertilizers, and pollution emitted by vehicles and industrial plants, human beings
have more than doubled the annual transfer of nitrogen into biologically available forms.[10] In addition, humans have
significantly contributed to the transfer of nitrogen trace gases from Earth to the atmosphere and from the land to
aquatic systems. Human alterations to the global nitrogen cycle are most intense in developed countries and in Asia,
where vehicle emissions and industrial agriculture are highest.
Nitrous oxide (N2O) has risen in the atmosphere as a result of agricultural fertilization, biomass burning, cattle and
feedlots, and industrial sources. N2O has deleterious effects in the stratosphere, where it breaks down and acts as a
catalyst in the destruction of atmospheric ozone. Nitrous oxide is also a greenhouse gas and is currently the third largest
contributor to global warming, after carbon dioxide and methane. While not as abundant in the atmosphere as carbon
dioxide, it is, for an equivalent mass, nearly 300 times more potent in its ability to warm the planet.
Ammonia (NH3) in the atmosphere has tripled as the result of human activities. It is a reactant in the atmosphere, where
it acts as an aerosol, decreasing air quality and clinging to water droplets, eventually resulting in nitric acid (HNO3) that
produces acid rain. Atmospheric ammonia and nitric acid also damage respiratory systems.
The very-high temperature of lightning naturally produces small amounts of NOx, NH3, and HNO3, but high-temperature
combustion has contributed to a 6 or 7 fold increase in the flux of NOx to the atmosphere. Its production is a function of
combustion temperature - the higher the temperature, the more NOx is produced. Fossil fuel combustion is a primary
contributor, but so are biofuels and even the burning of hydrogen. The higher combustion temperature of hydrogen
produces more NOx than natural gas combustion.
Ammonia and nitrous oxides actively alter atmospheric chemistry. They are precursors of tropospheric (lower
atmosphere) ozone production, which contributes to smog and acid rain, damages plants and increases nitrogen inputs to
ecosystems. Ecosystem processes can increase with nitrogen fertilization, but anthropogenic input can also result in
nitrogen saturation, which weakens productivity and can damage the health of plants, animals, fish, and humans.
Decreases in biodiversity can also result if higher nitrogen availability increases nitrogen-demanding grasses, causing a
degradation of nitrogen-poor, species diverse heathlands.

Environmental impacts
Additional risks posed by increased availability of inorganic nitrogen in aquatic ecosystems include water acidification;
eutrophication of fresh and saltwater systems; and toxicity issues for animals, including humans. Eutrophication often
leads to lower dissolved oxygen levels in the water column, including hypoxic and anoxic conditions, which can cause
death of aquatic fauna. Relatively sessile benthos, or bottom-dwelling creatures, are particularly vulnerable because of
their lack of mobility, though large fish kills are not uncommon. Oceanic dead zones near the mouth of the Mississippi
in the Gulf of Mexico are a well-known example of algal bloom-induced hypoxia. The New York Adirondack Lakes,
Catskills, Hudson Highlands, Rensselaer Plateau and parts of Long Island display the impact of nitric acid rain
deposition, resulting in the killing of fish and many other aquatic species.
Ammonia (NH3) is highly toxic to fish and the level of ammonia discharged from wastewater treatment facilities must
be closely monitored. To prevent fish deaths, nitrification via aeration prior to discharge is often desirable. Land
application can be an attractive alternative to the aeration