08 October 2010

Too Much of a Good Thing: Human Activities Overload Ecosystems With Nitrogen

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Humans are overloading ecosystems with nitrogen through the burning of fossil fuels and an increase in nitrogen-producing industrial and agricultural activities, according to a new study.
While nitrogen is an element that is essential to life, it is an environmental scourge at high levels.

According to the study, excess nitrogen that is contributed by human activities pollutes fresh waters and coastal zones, and may contribute to climate change. Nevertheless, such ecological damage could be reduced by the adoption of time-honored sustainable practices.

Appearing in the October 8, 2010 edition of Science and conducted by an international team of researchers, the study was partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

The nitrogen cycle--which has existed for billions of years--transforms non-biologically useful forms of nitrogen found in the atmosphere into various biologically useful forms of nitrogen that are needed by living things to create proteins, DNA and RNA, and by plants to grow and photosynthesize. The transformation of biologically useful forms of nitrogen to useful forms of nitrogen is known as nitrogen fixation.

Mostly mediated by bacteria that live in legume plant roots and soils, nitrogen fixation and other components of the nitrogen cycle weave and wind through the atmosphere, plants, subsurface plant roots, and soils; the nitrogen cycle involves many natural feedback relationships between plants and microorganisms.

According to the Science paper, since pre-biotic times, the nitrogen cycle has gone through several major phases. The cycle was initially controlled by slow volcanic processes and lightning and then by anaerobic organisms as biological activity started. By about 2.5 billion years ago, as molecular oxygen appeared on Earth, a linked suite of microbial processes evolved to form the modern nitrogen cycle.

(ScienceDaily)

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