Well, the importance of nitrogen can be gauged from the fact that all living beings need it to stay live. It is known to constitute the structure of proteins that we use to stay alive. It is also absolutely necessary for coding DNA. What is more, it is all around us so much so it makes up around 78% of the air we breathe. Ironically, most living things cannot use it. So the sustenance of life as we know depends on group of microbes called nitrogen fixing bacteria.
These diazotrophs use atmospheric nitrogen gas for fixing the vital element into ammonia, NH3, which can be used by other living organisms. However, they are able to do it with the help of an enzyme known as nitrogenase but this transformation needs a lot of energy. In order to stimulate growth of nitrogenase some diazotrophs eat up the organic material available in the soil. The others enter into mutually beneficial relationship with particular species. The bacteria get spot on the plant for taking roots and feed off on its carbon. In return, the plant will get constant supply of nitrogen.
In the absence of natural action of diazotrophs, either direct from the soil or because of symbiotic relationship, the plant in the wild would never have enough nitrogen to survive. This kind of dependency is visible in the entire food-chain. The protein produced by plants using nitrogen fixation is eaten by herbivores that are eaten carnivores for obtaining proteins.
With increase in the consumption of agricultural products, the nutrients required for growing our crops has exponentially exceeded the rate at which the bacteria can enrich the soils. In the wake of huge demand and population explosion by the start of 20th century, there was urgent need for creating an artificial method of nitrogen fixing.
Role of nitrogen in plant growth
In order to attain growth the plants needs to be fed nitrogen since they are sessile (unable to move) organisms. There is no denying the fact that nitrogen is an extremely important nutrient for production of amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids, etc. It is constantly required for achieving consistent growth in stone fruit trees. It is imperative that it is worked out how much N2 would be needed for optimum growth. Productivity of vegetable and fruit plants can only be ensured if we take care that receive adequate supply of nutrients.
There are numerous factors that come into play which must be thought out at the outset of the season or year. Then, those conditions must be maintained in way that it contributes to the growth and health of the plants. Since N2 is primarily taken through the roots in the form of ammonia or nitrate. However, quality of intake of nutrients from the soil depends on many factors such as soil moisture content, soil type, PH value, temperature and season of the year. For fruit bearing trees it is essential that proper balance is achieved though fertilization with enough leaf and tree growth while ensuring there is no adverse effect on quality and fruit production.
There is another important factor which cannot be overlooked. It is imperative that a healthy leafy canopy is maintained well past the harvest so that nitrogen in the leaves is used back for the development of the tree before defoliation which is kept for later use. In time it will support blooming and canopy growth in the next spring. The stored leaves are used before the tree starts the uptake of soil nitrogen.
Use nitrogen in the right proportion
If we have not stored adequate nitrogen from the tree canopy from the previous fall it is likely to stun the growth of canopy in the spring. And, if the insufficiency of nitrogen extends into the growing season, it will affect leaf and shoot growth negatively and will result in reduced yield. There might just as well be premature defoliation in the fall with leaves looking chlorotic (yellowish) having reddish hue and twigs will become stunted. And, fruits might have an excellent red colour but will be small in size. Taste of the fruit will get affected.
On the other hand, too much use of nitrogen will result in a growth of canopy which is way larger and thicker. It will negatively impact the diffusion of sunlight, water content of air within the canopy and effectiveness of pesticides. As a result, greater chance of diseases and smaller size with delayed ripening. Moreover, excessive vegetative growth will increase the labour cost with residual nitrogen, which is not consumed by the tree, contributing to environmental pollution.
How ammonia is produced?
This artificial method for creating nitrogen fixation was solved by the Haber-Bosch process. In this method, nitrogen and hydrogen gases are combined at high pressure and temperature forcing the nitrogen bond to break and allowing the freed atoms to join together as ammonia.
Around 160 million metric tons of ammonia is produced every year using the Haber-Bosch process. Most of it is used as a fertilizer. This is so because over 50% of the world’s food supply is dependent on the use of fertilizers. On the flip side, every year around 1.5% of all global carbon dioxide emissions are caused by the use of ammonia. Extensive research is going on to find ways of returning back to the use biological fixation method instead of relying on the artificially produced fertilizers.
Increasing efficiency and viability of biologically sustainable nitrogen fixation
Researchers are working on ways to make biological fixation more productive which is sought to be done by breeding bacteria which is not so choosy in its choice of plant partners. There is scope for making bacteria to partner with more plants. These can be called as elite strains and have been bred for traditional selection and are not genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
It is possible to modify bacteria to produce more fixed nitrogen for the partner plants. As the energy cost is high so some of the bacteria stop fixation if they detect adequate amount of bacteria in the soil. Due to this negative feedback loop, the researchers have found a way to keep the bacteria working even in ammonia rich conditions through genetic modification.
It is a fact that legume crops such as soybeans have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria. There is evidence of nonlegume crops like corn can also become amiable host for bacteria. Nitrogen fixing nitrogen found in the roots of sugarcane provide around 80% of the nitrogen consumed by it. It is considered a more efficient source of bioethanol than corn.
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