Nitrogen Fixation

No, it’s not one of Freud’s theories of obsession, nor is it the name of a new line of high tech Descente ski jackets worn by both elite and regular skiers all around the world, or the name of a line of jewelry. Although I must say it wouldn’t be so bad. Just recently I was online looking at sites that sold cubic zirconia rings. This synthetic gemstone is a really glittery stone when cut properly. It is “the” inexpensive alternative to buying a real diamond. Cubic zirconia rings look as beautiful and captivating as a real diamond. Cubic zirconia rings and other types of jewelry set with the synthetic gemstone exudes timeless beauty, versatility, and elegance, just like diamond jewelry does. Thus, I think “Nitrogen Fixation” would be a great name. Cubic zirconia (CZ) is the cubic crystalline form of zirconium dioxide (ZrO2) which can be found in small quantities naturally in the form of microscopic grains included in metamict zircon. Once Russian scientists perfected a technique of producing single-crystal cubic zirconia, it is now easily mass-produced commercially. You see cubic zirconia jewelry everywhere. On second thought, perhaps Zirconia Fixation would be a better name.

Anyway, nitrogen fixation is an amazing natural process by which nitrogen is converted into something else.

Technically, nitrogen fixation covers a range of conversions, but the most common and well-known conversion is nitrogen into ammonia. Why? Because it is absolutely fundamental to Life As We Know It.

The nitrogen released via nitrogen fixation is essential for proteins, and therefore amino acids, which are essential for life itself. There are many things that we could live without, but fixed nitrogen is definitely NOT one of them.

Here come the technical bits: Atmospheric nitrogen is called N2 because two nitrogen molecules are bound together. I mean, really bound together (three times, to be exact). It takes an enormous amount of energy to separate them (unlike many compounds made with nitrogen, which are notably unstable!).

Some single-celled organisms (called diazotrophs) synthesize an enzyme called nitrogenase that allows them to fix nitrogen.

A symbiotic bacteria known as Rhizobia likes to hang out in the roots of certain plants (specifically, legumes), happily making nitrogen compounds for its host. When the plant dies, all of that delicious nitrogen fertilizes the soil — the main reason why crop rotation so often includes “green manure” like clover and alfalfa.

Another fun little guy is called Frankia; this bacteria forms a symbiosis with a very select group of plant species. How select? There’s only 22 total, and they represent a wide range of plant families. Trees like Birch and Alder get their nitrogen fix from Frankia, and so do about a dozen shrubs and evergreens, but so does the Datisca, an herbaceous plant that resembles hemp.

On a larger or smaller scale, depending on how you look at it, there’s also the cyanobacteria’s approach to nitrogen fixation. They say that blue-green algae is one of the single most important species in the history of Earth, and it’s the only one that can perform nitrogen fixing in aerobic conditions (i.e., with oxygen around). It does this so well, in fact, that cyanobacteria in coral reefs is about twice as efficient as on land.

For the morbid among us, nitrogen is responsible for that unmistakable smell of decay. The graphically-named “cadaverine” and “putrescine” are created during the process of breaking down amino acids that occurs during decay…but also gives that certain tang to bad breath, urine, semen, and vaginosis (so the next time you tell someone that they smell like something died in or on them, you may be rather unpleasantly scientifically accurate). The same goes for fish…

keep an eye out for additional information from time to time.

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