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Nitrogen fixation is the process by which nitrogen, a gas at atmospheric temperatures that represents approximately 80 percent of the total atmosphere of the earth, becomes a chemical compound that is somewhat more reactive than the almost-inert gas form. Fixation takes place through atmospheric phenomena such as lightning, ultraviolet rays, and microscopic soil organism activity.
As agricultural science began to reveal the importance of fixed nitrogen in the soil as a fertilizing agent, the efforts of farmers and technicians to increase and control nitrogen fixation have also multiplied. Intensive agricultural systems rely on artificially fixated nitrogen, and this intensive use has created a number of new problems. This has added chemical forms of fixation to atmospheric and biological fixation processes.
The majority of natural nitrogen fixation-more than 90 percent-comes about as the result of microbial soil organisms. Two principal groups of organisms are involved: the first is nonsymbiotic or free-living bacteria, such as cyanobacteria (bluegreen algae); the second are the symbiotic bacteria that are commonly associated with cereal grasses and legumes. Symbiotic organisms live in contact with certain plants and encourage free atmospheric nitrogen to become fixed as nitrates; the plant then uses these as nutrition. Considerable efforts have been made to understand and document the processes involved in nitrogen fixation, and to determine ways to reduce unpredictability and increase yields. This has led to various attempts to stimulate nitrogen fixation, the creation of nitrogen-rich fertilizers, and the development of inoculation techniques to ensure that food plants grow in optimal ways rather than organism-driven growth patterns.
In some fruit and vegetable markets in the developed world, marketing motivations require almost perfectly identical specimens, and this has implications for the removal of organisms that affect specimen growth and nutritional value. The majority of plants, even important food plants, have not been fully investigated for the nodule-creation process by which symbiotic organisms fix nitrogen. Consequently, it is possible that major breakthroughs in reducing world hunger are possible, as well as less welcome side effects. There are known to be three sets of factors that affect the process: climatic factors, management factors, and edaphic (soil-related) factors.
Although less well-known than the soil-based version, nitrogen fixation also takes place in water, primarily through the actions of lake or river plants that convert gaseous forms of nitrogen into solid forms, which are then attached to plants in a symbiotic fashion. Artificially stimulated waterborne nitrogen fixation might become important in increasing the food yield of water resources and in helping to remove pollution. This may be of increasing utility as freestanding sources of clean water decline as a result of global warming, and the amount of edible fish may fall drastically.
Human involvement with nitrogen fixation is an example of the significant yet largely unnoticed ways in which humanity has converted the planet into an engine intended to be more conducive for human habitation.
- Technical Paper 2: Biological Nitrogen Fixation (Food and Agriculture Organization, undated); John Postgate, Nitrogen Fixation (Cambridge University Press, 1998);
- Barry E. Smith, Raymond L. Richards, and William Newton, eds., Catalysts for Nitrogen Fixation: Nitrogenases, Relevant Chemical Models and Commercial Processes (Springer, 2004).