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The Power of Nitrogen

You probably know that protein, carbs, and fats are different macronutrients, but have you ever wondered what differentiates the three? The main difference between them is their elemental makeup: carbs and fats are made of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon in varying ratios. Protein on the other hand is made of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. Nitrogen plays a very important role in the formation of protein and the impacts that protein has on the body. To learn more about the role of nitrogen in protein, read on.


Nitrogen is the most abundant element in our atmosphere. In fact, about 78% of the atmosphere is nitrogen. It is a colorless and odorless element that can be found in Earth’s soils, air and water. Nitrogen moves through a cycle, called the nitrogen cycle, that helps bring it out of the air, into plants and the soil. This is important because nitrogen helps plants thrive, and with too little nitrogen plants turn yellow and whither. However, it is important that there is not too much nitrogen, as too much can be toxic to plants. Often, if plants are turning yellow in fields, farmers may add a nitrogen rich fertilizer to provide a boost of nutrients. However, this can lead to an accumulation of nitrogen in the soil and then when it rains this nitrogen can runoff into waterways and cause an overgrowth of aquatic plants harming aquatic life, a phenomenon known as eutrophication.


Nitrogen starts in the air, in a gaseous form. This gas is unavailable to plants, so in order to make it available, the nitrogen must be transformed through a process known as nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen fixation transforms gaseous nitrogen in the atmosphere into a form of nitrogen that plants can absorb. Bacteria are integral to this nitrogen fixation process: they attach to plant roots, receive energy from the plants photosynthesis, and fix nitrogen into a form the plant needs. The fixed nitrogen is then used by the plant to form plant tissue, proteins, enzymes, and amino acids so that the plant can grow and thrive.  Chocho creates this symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the soil, and fixes 143 to 196 pounds of nitrogen per acre (cite)! 

The next stage is mineralization, when microbes help to decompose dead plants and extract their nitrogen into a form that other living plants can use. Then nitrification occurs. During nitrification, the ammonia in the soils that is produced during mineralization, is converted into nitrites and nitrates. Nitrates are used by plants and animals that consume the plants (like humans). Nitrites can not be used by plants and animals, but bacteria, called nitrobacteria, can change nitrites into nitrates. This is followed by immobilization, a stage that helps to balance nitrogen in the soil. Finally, nitrogen returns to the air. This is the final stage in the nitrogen cycle, known as denitrification. Bacteria converts nitrogen back into a gaseous state that returns to the atmosphere. The cycle then repeats itself.


It is the presence of nitrogen that separates proteins from carbohydrates and fats. After all, amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, are made of nitrogen and hydrogen. When plants absorb nitrogen, they are able to grow and produce enzymes, proteins, and amino acids. When we consume plant foods, especially plant foods high in protein, we are consuming both nitrogen and the products of the nitrogen cycle. In consuming nitrogen, we are helping our bodies get the ingredients to synthesize the amino acids we need to function, grow, and stay strong. In consuming the products of the nitrogen cycle, we are consuming proteins that we can also use to create hormones, enzymes, and tissue in our bodies.


The nitrogen cycle has huge impacts on our atmosphere and on us, humans. First of all, plant production is limited by the availability of nitrogen. Without enough nitrogen, we would not have any plant based foods. The cool thing about nature is there are plants, like chocho, that help fixate nitrogen into the soil acting like a natural fertilizer. The flip side is also true, with too much added nitrogen we would be in trouble. When too much nitrogen is available, it runs off into aquatic ecosystems and can cause massive algal blooms that suffocate marine life and make our water ways inhospitable to humans. Nitrogen is essential for our survival, it is a building block of amino acids which make up proteins. Proteins are necessary for not just building muscle and growing, but also for day to day functioning, hormone health, and just about anything else your body does. Without nitrogen, and the miraculous systems of the nitrogen cycle, we would not be able to live. Cheers to nitrogen!

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