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The nitrogen cycle. Infographic: <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nitrogen_Cycle.jpg">US EPA</a>
The nitrogen cycle. Infographic: US EPA

Natural Selections: Nitrogen

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Our atmosphere is about 80 percent nitrogen. Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager explore the ways this common element and necessary component of all life forms interacts with the biosphere.

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Nitrogen is a necessary ingredient in the body's structure. It is generally found in the proteins of our muscle, hair, and fingernails. Nitrogen is also necessary for plants to grow. We get our nitrogen from the plants that we eat or the animals that have eaten the plants. Most plants get nitrogen from fertilizer, such as animal manure or composted plant matter.

As our population grows, we require food at a faster rate than the soil can produce without the aid of additional fertilizing nitrogen sources. Crops that are taken away from where they grow deplete the soil of nitrogen. That has to be replaced for the next season's crop to grow well.

Artificial nitrogen-containing fertilizer was invented by a scientist in Germany, originally to supply explosives during World War One. Dr. Curt Stager says, "A nitrogen atom is a nitrogen atom. It's not any more healthy or less depending if it's made artificially from the air." Nitrogen fertilizer's later use as a powerful growth agent for food crops made possible an explosion in human population.

"Some experts suggest that of the seven billion people in the world now, that about 2 billion of them are only here because of Haber-Bosch artificially-fixed nitrogen fertilizers," says Stager. It is now estimated that almost all of the nitrogen in the average American's protein is artificial.

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