- Explain the need for nitrogen fixation and how it is accomplished
Nitrogen is a very important element to living things, because it is part of nucleotides and amino acids that are the building blocks of nucleic acids and proteins, respectively. Nitrogen is usually the most limiting element in terrestrial ecosystems, with atmospheric nitrogen, N2, providing the largest pool of available nitrogen. However, eukaryotes cannot use atmospheric, gaseous nitrogen to synthesize macromolecules. Fortunately, nitrogen can be “fixed,” meaning it is converted into a more accessible form—ammonia (NH3)—either biologically or abiotically.
Abiotic nitrogen fixation occurs as a result of physical processes such as lightning or by industrial processes. Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) is exclusively carried out by prokaryotes: soil bacteria, cyanobacteria, and Frankia spp. (filamentous bacteria interacting with actinorhizal plants such as alder, bayberry, and sweet fern). After photosynthesis, BNF is the most important biological process on Earth. The overall nitrogen fixation equation below represents a series of redox reactions (Pi stands for inorganic phosphate).
The total fixed nitrogen through BNF is about 100 to 180 million metric tons per year, which contributes about 65 percent of the nitrogen used in agriculture.
Cyanobacteria are the most important nitrogen fixers in aquatic environments. In soil, members of the genus Clostridium are examples of free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Other bacteria live symbiotically with legume plants, providing the most important source of BNF. Symbionts may fix more nitrogen in soils than free-living organisms by a factor of 10. Soil bacteria, collectively called rhizobia, are able to symbiotically interact with legumes to form nodules, specialized structures where nitrogen fixation occurs (Figure 1). Nitrogenase, the enzyme that fixes nitrogen, is inactivated by oxygen, so the nodule provides an oxygen-free area for nitrogen fixation to take place. The oxygen is sequestered by a form of plant hemoglobin called leghemoglobin, which protects the nitrogenase, but releases enough oxygen to support respiratory activity.
Symbiotic nitrogen fixation provides a natural and inexpensive plant fertilizer: It reduces atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia, which is easily usable by plants. The use of legumes is an excellent alternative to chemical fertilization and is of special interest to sustainable agriculture, which seeks to minimize the use of chemicals and conserve natural resources. Through symbiotic nitrogen fixation, the plant benefits from using an endless source of nitrogen: the atmosphere. The bacteria benefit from using photosynthates (carbohydrates produced during photosynthesis) from the plant and having a protected niche. In addition, the soil benefits from being naturally fertilized. Therefore, the use of rhizobia as biofertilizers is a sustainable practice.
Why are legumes so important? Some, like soybeans, are key sources of agricultural protein. Some of the most important grain legumes are soybean, peanuts, peas, chickpeas, and beans. Other legumes, such as alfalfa, are used to feed cattle.