The nitrogen cycle
The nitrogen cycle
Nitrogen is required for the biosynthesis of many cellular components and can take on many oxidation states, ranging from −3 to +5. Consequently, nitrogen compounds can act as either electron donors (chemolithotrophy) or electron acceptors (anaerobic respiration). The nitrogen cycle starts with nitrogen fixation, the reduction of nitrogen gas to ammonium. Nitrogen fixation is carried out only by prokaryotes, mainly some cyanobacteria and heterotrophic bacteria. The ammonium resulting from nitrogen fixation is quickly used by many organisms for biosynthesis, being preferred over nitrate as a nitrogen source. It is also oxidized aerobically by chemolithoautotrophic bacteria and archaea during the first step of nitrification. The second step, nitrite oxidation, is carried out by other bacteria not involved in ammonia oxidation, resulting in the formation of nitrate. Some bacteria are capable of carrying out both steps (“comammox”). This nitrate can then be reduced to nitrogen gas or nitrous oxide during denitrification. It can be reduced to ammonium, a process called “dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium.” Nitrogen gas is also released by anaerobic oxidation of ammonium (“anammox”) which is carried out by bacteria in the Planctomycetes phylum. The theoretical contribution of anammox to total nitrogen gas release is 29%, but the actual contribution varies greatly. Another gas in the nitrogen cycle, nitrous oxide, is a greenhouse gas produced by ammonia-oxidizing bacteria and archaea. The available data indicate that the global nitrogen cycle is in balance, with losses from nitrogen gas production equaling gains via nitrogen fixation. But excess nitrogen from fertilizers is contributing to local imbalances and several environmental problems in drinking waters, reservoirs, lakes, and coastal oceans.
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