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Curr Biol. 2016 Feb 8;26(3):R94-8. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.021.

The nitrogen cycle.

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Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada. Electronic address:
Department of Biology and School of Earth & Environmental Sciences, Queens College of the City University of New York, Flushing, NY, USA; Institute of Marine Microbes & Ecospheres and State Key Laboratory of Marine Environmental Science, Xiamen University, Xiamen, China.


Nitrogen is the fourth most abundant element in cellular biomass, and it comprises the majority of Earth's atmosphere. The interchange between inert dinitrogen gas (N2) in the extant atmosphere and 'reactive nitrogen' (those nitrogen compounds that support, or are products of, cellular metabolism and growth) is entirely controlled by microbial activities. This was not the case, however, in the primordial atmosphere, when abiotic reactions likely played a significant role in the inter-transformation of nitrogen oxides. Although such abiotic reactions are still important, the extant nitrogen cycle is driven by reductive fixation of dinitrogen and an enzyme inventory that facilitates dinitrogen-producing reactions. Prior to the advent of the Haber-Bosch process (the industrial fixation of N2 into ammonia, NH3) in 1909, nearly all of the reactive nitrogen in the biosphere was generated and recycled by microorganisms. Although the Haber-Bosch process more than quadrupled the productivity of agricultural crops, chemical fertilizers and other anthropogenic sources of fixed nitrogen now far exceed natural contributions, leading to unprecedented environmental degradation.

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