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Nitrogen Cycle

Nitrogen is essential for life and is constantly being recycled by living things. Learn about the cycle of nitrogen in our ecosystems.

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The Nitrogen Cycle

Alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soy, and peanuts. What are these?

Legumes. Legume plants have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, due to a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with bacteria found in root nodules of these plants.

The Nitrogen Cycle

Nitrogen makes up 78 percent of Earth’s atmosphere. It’s also an important part of living things. Nitrogen is found in proteins, nucleic acids, and chlorophyll. The nitrogen cycle moves nitrogen through the abiotic and biotic parts of ecosystems. Figure below shows how nitrogen cycles through a terrestrial ecosystem. Nitrogen passes through a similar cycle in aquatic ecosystems.

Nitrogen Cycle in a Terrestrial Ecosystem. Nitrogen cycles between the atmosphere and living things.

Plants cannot use nitrogen gas from the air to make organic compounds for themselves and other organisms. The nitrogen gas must be changed to a form called nitrates, which plants can absorb through their roots. The process of changing nitrogen gas to nitrates is called nitrogen fixation. It is carried out by nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The bacteria live in soil and roots of legumes, such as peas.

When plants and other organisms die, decomposers break down their remains. In the process, they release nitrogen in the form of ammonium ions. This process is called ammonification. Nitrifying bacteria change the ammonium ions into nitrites and nitrates. Some of the nitrates are used by plants. The process of converting ammonium ions to nitrites or nitrates is called nitrification. Still other bacteria, called denitrifying bacteria, convert some of the nitrates in soil back into nitrogen gas in a process called denitrification. The process is the opposite of nitrogen fixation. Denitrification returns nitrogen gas back to the atmosphere, where it can continue the nitrogen cycle.

For a review of the Nitrogen Cycle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaFVfHftzpI

See The Nitrogen Cycle: An Aquatic Perspective at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdY4I-EaqJA&feature=fvw (5:08) for a summary of this cycle.

The cycle is also summarized at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w03iO_Yu9Xw&feature=related (2:04).


  • The nitrogen cycle moves nitrogen back and forth between the atmosphere and organisms.
  • Bacteria change nitrogen gas from the atmosphere to nitrogen compounds that plants can absorb.
  • Other bacteria change nitrogen compounds back to nitrogen gas, which re-enters the atmosphere.


1. What gas makes up 78% of the air in the atmosphere around us?

2. Why is nitrogen fixation important for plants?

3. Explain why bacteria are essential parts of the nitrogen cycle.

4. Explain why the nitrogen cycle is considered a biogeochemical cycle.

5. What is denitrification fixation, and why is it an important part of the nitrogen cycle?

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