The nitrogen cycle is the process by which nitrogen is converted between its various chemical forms. This transformation can be carried out via both biological and non-biological processes. Key processes in the nitrogen cycle include fixation, mineralization, nitrification, and denitrification. The majority of Earth's atmosphere (approximately 78-80%) is nitrogen, making it the largest pool of nitrogen. However, atmospheric nitrogen is unavailable for biological use, leading to a scarcity of usable nitrogen in many types of ecosystems. The nitrogen cycle is of particular interest to ecologists because nitrogen availability can affect the rate of key ecosystem processes, including primary production and decomposition. Human activities such as fossil fuel combustion, use of artificial nitrogen fertilizers, and release of nitrogen in wastewater have dramatically altered the global nitrogen cycle.
Nitrogen is essential for many processes; it is crucial for any life on Earth. It is in all amino acids, is incorporated into proteins, and is present in the bases that make up nucleic acids, such as DNA and RNA. In plants, much of the nitrogen is used in chlorophyll molecules, which are essential for photosynthesis and further growth.
Although earth’s atmosphere is an abundant source of nitrogen, most is relatively unusable by plants. Chemical processing, or natural fixation (through processes such as bacterial conversion--see rhizobium), are necessary to convert gaseous nitrogen into forms usable by living organisms. This makes nitrogen a crucial part of food production. The abundance or scarcity of this "fixed" form of nitrogen, (also known as reactive nitrogen), dictates how much food can be grown on a piece of land.
Ammonia is highly toxic to fish and the water discharge level of ammonia from wastewater treatment plants must often be closely monitored. To prevent loss of fish, nitrification prior to discharge is often desirable. Land application can be an attractive alternative to the mechanical [aeration] needed for nitrification.
Nitrogen is present in the environment in a wide variety of chemical forms including organic nitrogen, ammonium (NH4+), nitrate (NO3-), and nitrogen gas (N2). The processes of the nitrogen cycle transform nitrogen from one chemical form to another. Many of the processes are carried out by microbes either to produce energy or to accumulate nitrogen in the form needed for growth. The diagram above shows how these processes fit together to form the nitrogen cycle.
Atmospheric nitrogen must be processed, or "fixed" (see page on nitrogen fixation), in order to be used by plants. Some fixation occurs in lightning strikes, but most fixation is done by free-living or symbiotic bacteria. These bacteria have the nitrogenase enzyme that combines gaseous nitrogen with hydrogen to produce ammonia, which is then further converted by the bacteria to make their own organic compounds. Some nitrogen fixing bacteria, such as Rhizobium, live in the root nodules of legumes (such as peas or beans). Here they form a mutualistic relationship with the plant, producing ammonia in exchange for carbohydrates. Nutrient-poor soils can be planted with legumes to enrich them with nitrogen. A few other plants can form such symbioses. Today, a very considerable portion of nitrogen is fixated in ammonia chemical plants.
The conversion of nitrogen (N2) from the atmosphere into a form readily available to plants and hence to animals and humans is an important step in the nitrogen cycle, which distributes the supply of this essential nutrient. There are four ways to convert N2 (atmospheric nitrogen gas) into more chemically reactive forms:
Some plants get nitrogen from the soil, and by absorption of their roots in the form of either nitrate ions or ammonium ions. All nitrogen obtained by animals can be traced back to the eating of plants at some stage of the food chain.
Plants can absorb nitrate or ammonium ions from the soil via their root hairs. If nitrate is absorbed, it is first reduced to nitrite ions and then ammonium ions for incorporation into amino acids, intense nucleic acids, and chlorophyll. In plants that have a mutualistic relationship with rhizobia, some nitrogen is assimilated in the form of ammonium ions directly from the nodules. Animals, fungi, and other heterotrophic organisms absorb nitrogen as amino acids, nucleotides and other small organic molecules.
When a plant dies, an animal dies, or an animal expels waste, the initial form of nitrogen is organic. Bacteria, or in some cases, fungi, convert the organic nitrogen within the remains back into ammonium (NH4+), a process called ammonification or mineralization. Enzymes Involved:
The conversion of ammonia to nitrates is performed primarily by soil-living bacteria and other nitrifying bacteria. The primary stage of nitrification, the oxidation of ammonia (NH3) is performed by bacteria such as the Nitrosomonas species, which converts ammonia to nitrites (NO2-). Other bacterial species, such as the Nitrobacter, are responsible for the oxidation of the nitrites into nitrates (NO3-)..It is important for the nitrites to be converted to nitrates because accumulated nitrites are toxic to plant life.
Due to their very high solubility, nitrates can enter groundwater. Elevated nitrate in groundwater is a concern for drinking water use because nitrate can interfere with blood-oxygen levels in infants and cause methemoglobinemia or blue-baby syndrome. Where groundwater recharges stream flow, nitrate-enriched groundwater can contribute to eutrophication, a process leading to high algal, especially blue-green algal populations and the death of aquatic life due to excessive demand for oxygen. While not directly toxic to fish life like ammonia, nitrate can have indirect effects on fish if it contributes to this eutrophication. Nitrogen has contributed to severe eutrophication problems in some water bodies. As of 2006, the application of nitrogen fertilizer is being increasingly controlled in Britain and the United States. This is occurring along the same lines as control of phosphorus fertilizer, restriction of which is normally considered essential to the recovery of eutrophied waterbodies.
Denitrification is the reduction of nitrates back into the largely inert nitrogen gas (N2), completing the nitrogen cycle. This process is performed by bacterial species such as Pseudomonas and Clostridium in anaerobic conditions. They use the nitrate as an electron acceptor in the place of oxygen during respiration. These facultatively anaerobic bacteria can also live in aerobic conditions.
As a result of extensive cultivation of legumes (particularly soy, alfalfa, and clover), growing use of the Haber-Bosch 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. 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.
N2O (nitrous oxide) has risen in the atmosphere as a result of agricultural fertilization, biomass burning, cattle and feedlots, and other industrial sources. N2O has deleterious effects in the stratosphere, where it breaks down and acts as a catalyst in the destruction of atmospheric ozone. N2O in the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas, currently the third largest contributor to global warming, after carbon dioxide and methane. While not as abundant in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, for an equivalent mass, nitrous oxide is 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 on to water droplets, eventually resulting in acid rain. Fossil fuel combustion has contributed to a 6 or 7 fold increase in NOx flux to the atmosphere. NO2 actively alters atmospheric chemistry, and is a precursor of tropospheric (lower atmosphere) ozone production, which contributes to smog, 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 kill plants. Decreases in biodiversity can also result if higher nitrogen availability increases nitrogen-demanding grasses, causing a degradation of nitrogen-poor, species diverse heathlands.
Onsite sewage facilities such as septic tanks and holding tanks release large amounts of nitrogen into the environment by discharging through a drainfield into the ground. Microbial activity consumes the nitrogen and other contaminants in the wastewater.
However, in certain areas, the soil is unsuitable to handle some or all of the wastewater, and, as a result, the wastewater with the contaminants enters the aquifers. These contaminants accumulate and eventually end up in drinking water. One of the contaminants concerned about the most is nitrogen in the form of nitrates. A nitrate concentration of 10 ppm or 10 milligrams per liter is the current EPA limit for drinking water and typical household wastewater can produce a range of 20-85 ppm.
The health risk associated with drinking water (with >10 ppm nitrate) is the development of methemoglobinemia and has been found to cause blue baby syndrome. Several states have now started programs to introduce advanced wastewater treatment systems to the typical onsite sewage facilities. The result of these systems is an overall reduction of nitrogen, as well as other contaminants in the wastewater.
Air is about 78% nitrogen. It is the largest supply of nitrogen known. Nitrogen is needed for life. It is an important part of proteins, DNA, and RNA. In plants, nitrogen is needed for photosynthesis and growth.  Nitrogen fixation is needed to change the nitrogen in air (N2) into forms that can be used by life. Most nitrogen fixation is done by micro-organisms called bacteria. These bacteria have an enzyme that combines N2 with hydrogen gas (H2) to make ammonia (NH3). Some of these bacteria live in the roots of plants (mostly legumes). In these roots, they make ammonia for the plant and the plant gives them carbohydrates. Other plants take nitrogen compounds out of the soil through their roots. All nitrogen in animals comes from eating plants.
Ammonium (NH4) in soil is made by nitrogen-fixing bacteria and decomposes, bacteria and fungi that break down dead life into its parts. This process is called ammonification. Ammonium has a positive charge. It easily joins to clay and humus in the soil. Ammonia and ammonium are poisonous to fish and other animals. Sewage and other waste-water is regularly measured because of this. If ammonia levels are too high, nitrification must happen.
Nitrification is the change of ammonia and ammonium to nitrites (NO2) and then to nitrates (NO3) by bacteria. Because nitrite and nitrate have a negative charge they do not easily join to soil and will wash out of the soil during rain and irrigation. High nitrate levels in drinking water is harmful for babies and can cause blue-baby syndrome.  High nitrate levels can also cause too much algae growth in lakes and pools. This can be harmful to fish and other water animals because the algae uses oxygen that the animals need. The use of fertilizers is controlled more and more because of this.
Where there is no oxygen, some bacteria will make nitrate into nitrogen gas (N2). This starts the nitrogen cycle over again. This process is called denitrification.