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Circulation of nitrogen in various forms throughout nature. Nitrogen is essential to life, but in the atmosphere it is in a form (the diatomic molecule N) unavailable to most organisms. Nitrogen fixation by microbes turns this nitrogen into nitrates and other compounds, which plants or algae assimilate into their tissues. Animals that eat plants in turn incorporate the compounds into their own tissues. Microbes decompose the remains and waste of all living things into ammonia (ammonification); the ammonia may leave the soil through vaporization into the air or leaching into water. Ammonia remaining in soil may be transformed by bacteria into nitrates (nitrification), which then can be reassimilated into living organisms, or into free nitrogen (denitrification), which reenters the atmosphere. Hence, once fixed from air, some nitrogen goes through the cycle repeatedly without returning to the gaseous state.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on nitrogen cycle, visit Britannica.com.