It is common knowledge that nitrogen is the most abundant element in the Earth’s atmosphere. This abundance is necessary because it is highly essential for the survival of life on this planet. We indeed need oxygen to survive, and we are usually more concerned about its levels in the atmosphere and our environment. Still, life would become almost unsustainable without nitrogen as well.
Nitrogen is a colorless and odorless gas; therefore, even though abundant amounts surround us, we hardly tend to notice it. It is one of the six fundamental building blocks of life on Earth; the others are Carbon, Hydrogen, Phosphorous, and Sulfur. Nitrogen and all these elements help form complex life through substances like amino acids, nucleic acids, etc.
Alchemists first identified nitrogen in the form of ammonium chloride, and this compound was termed sal ammonia. The sal ammonia was obtained by mixing dung, salt, and urine and then exposing the mixture to heat. However, Nitrogen gas was not properly discovered until the 1760s. This amazing discovery was made by scientists Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestly.
Cavendish and Priestly made their ground-breaking discovery by removing oxygen from trapped air. But neither scientist was able to identify nitrogen as an element. A student named Daniel Rutherford first suggested and identified nitrogen as an essential element in his doctorate thesis that he submitted in 1772.
Nitrogen is obtained from the atmosphere by distillation of liquid air. It is available in the form of compounds in almost all life forms. Due to its abundance, we can draw almost 45 million tonnes annually. We can also obtain nitrogen from other sources, such as coal and fossil fuels.
The atmospheric pressure we are constantly under heavily depends on nitrogen to stay at an optimum level. It is because nitrogen comprises 78% of the entire atmosphere. One can imagine its effects on the atmosphere and its pressure if the Nitrogen levels suddenly start dwindling.
Nature has its way of maintaining optimum levels of nitrogen in the air because, just like too little an amount of nitrogen would threaten life, too much nitrogen can be harmful too. The natural phenomenon called the Nitrogen Cycle helps to balance out any lack or excess of this precious element.
In this process, called the Nitrogen Cycle, atmospheric nitrogen is broken down into nitrogen-based compounds and stored in the plants in the form of protein. When animals consume this protein and excrete waste, the waste secretes ammonia, some of which is converted into nitrogen compounds and reabsorbed by the plants. At the same time, the rest is released back into the atmosphere.
Because of the Nitrogen Cycle, the percentage of atmospheric nitrogen usually remains constant and does not hamper the quality of life. We can release ammonia from plant waste as well. Sometimes lightning strikes can help speed up the process by quickly breaking down atmosphere Nitrogen into compounds that the roots of plants can directly absorb.
Effect of the Absence of Nitrogen on Earth
Reduction of Atmospheric Pressure
Have you ever felt like you were having a tough time breathing when visiting a hill station? There is a simple reason behind this. As you travel upwards, the air starts to get thinner and thinner, which leads to a lack of oxygen. Thin air also means low atmospheric pressure. It makes breathing difficult.
The right amount of atmospheric pressure is necessary for optimum oxygen to be squeezed out of your lungs and flow into your bloodstream. If the pressure reduces, the oxygen-pumping ability of your lungs is compromised.
Now imagine a gas like nitrogen, which occupies about 78% of the atmosphere, suddenly disappears. It will lead to an immense and rapid fall in atmospheric pressure. Thus, your lungs can barely send the requisite oxygen into the bloodstream.
Metabolism, as we all know, is an absolute requirement to sustain life. A complete lack of nitrogen will drop our metabolism to a level that will most probably be fatal. It will have disastrous effects as all cells require oxygen to remove the metabolic process and release carbon dioxide as a waste product.
Besides metabolism, a sudden drop in atmospheric pressure due to a sudden lack of nitrogen will also affect our sinuses. The sinuses in our forehead exert an outward pressure balanced by the atmospheric pressure outside. A sudden drop in the barometric pressure due to the absence of nitrogen will disturb this balance causing you painful headaches.
When pressure drops, causing a drop in the oxygen levels in the bloodstream (as mentioned before), your brain will try to compensate for this loss by dilating the blood vessels in your head to encourage a better flow of oxygen. Toxygeno will lead to extremely painful headaches.
In addition to all this, changes in atmospheric pressure will also affect the sinuses in your nose. It will make them swell up and therefore constrict your nasal passage. It again will lead to difficulty in breathing.
Increases Risk of Cancer
A lack of oxygen in the atmosphere will also lead to a nitrogen deficiency within our bodies. This deficiency will lead to a drastic increase in unstable oxygen radicals within our bodies. These oxygen radicals are harmful because it directly attacks our DNA structure.
These radical oxygen particles attack not only the DNA bases but also its deoxyribosyl backbone. These unstable oxygen particles also affect other cellular components, such as lipids, leaving them in a reactive state.
This kind of endogenous damage to our DNA is highly harmful and can induce mutations. High levels of DNA damage, such as translocations, loss of heterozygosity, amplifications, and deletions, become the initiation point for cancer.
Any damage in the DNA structure or our repair genes will inevitably lead to an accumulation of cancers or various mutations. Thus, even though we often ignore the grave importance of nitrogen in our lives due to its abundance, a sudden absence of it will affect our internal systems so drastically that we will not be able to survive.
Dire Effects on Plant Life and Crops:
Nitrogen is an essential component for plants. A deficiency of nitrogen will not only have detrimental effects on our internal bodily activities but also on nature. Depending on the degree of nitrogen deficiency, plants can display different levels of stunted growth.
This stunted growth results from several inhibitions within the plant due to the lack of oxygen. It includes – inhibition of leaf growth (especially younger leaves) and inhibition of the growth of the longitudinal shoot. The increase in dimensional thickness is also restricted by nitrogen deficiency.
Nitrogen is an essential component of chlorophyll. Since it is an essential component of chlorophyll, one can easily estimate that it is essential for the process of photosynthesis as well. Thus, sudden deficiencies will remove the beautiful green color you see on plants and make them appear yellowish.
A sudden absence will hamper the plant’s ability to carry out photosynthesis properly. It, in turn, will reduce oxygen levels in the atmosphere, threatening the survival of all forms of life on Earth.
Since nitrogen deficiency hampers the internal processes of a plant, it has a dire effect on our food crops as well. Plants with nitrogen deficiencies are subject to chlorosis. They also produce poor-quality fruits.
As we know, the nitrogen fixation process allows plants to smoothly run their various biochemical processes and store essential proteins in the form of amino acids. These amino acids serve as nutrients for animals who feed on these plants.
A lack of atmospheric nitrogen will inhibit these biochemical processes and, ultimately, the production of essential plant proteins. Thus millions of plant-eating animals worldwide will be deprived of a major nutrient source.
From the above points, nitrogen deficiency will severely affect plant and animal life. And a complete absence of it will most probably lead to the death of plants and living organisms. Neither nature nor our bodies have evolved to stay functioning in a world without nitrogen. Thus, as an element, nitrogen is essential to life.
Is There Any Way to Survive Without Nitrogen?
At a glance, unfortunately, there is no way plant, or animal life can survive without nitrogen. There have been certain discussions on how life might be able to thrive even in the complete absence of nitrogen, but no concrete conclusions have been reached. However, as we all know, nature seems to find a way.
One conjecture is that if life were to survive on a planet that is completely devoid of nitrogen, then other elements would have to show certain and sufficient levels of reactivity and complexity that would form a biosphere without nitrogen. In such a hypothetical case, the numerous nitrogen-based compounds found in the air will have to be replaced by various chemicals that do not necessarily hail from the same element.
One hypothetical way of surviving in the absence of nitrogen would be to create a different variant of life form whose DNA is comprised of non-nitrogen compounds, and these compounds should have the ability to synthesize proteins organically. However, these are very far-fetched ideas that, quite frankly, are easier said than done.
Nature is a beautiful self-sustaining system. Everything in nature exists for one purpose or the other. Some things may have more impact than others, but they all serve specific purposes. Nitrogen is one of those things that have a significant impact. Due to its clear abundance, we do not stop to spare nitrogen much thought.
It is truly an essential element, but it is also quite tricky. We need to maintain certain specific levels of it in the atmosphere. Just like an absence or depletion of Nitrogen levels will have a dire effect on life and nature, an excess of this element too can cause great damage.
While nitrogen is essential for plants, an excess of it poses a significant danger to delicate plant life, which may hamper the balance of the ecosystem. An excess of nitrogen fertilizers sometimes negatively affects many plant species except for the more nitrogen-tolerant variety of plants. These fertilizers also damage soil quality in the long run by making it too acidic.
Just as an absence of nitrogen leads to the risk of cancer, so does an excess of it. Nitrogen contributes to the formation of molecules called pyrimidines which are the building blocks of our DNA and RNA. An excess of these pyrimidines will lead to an increase in DNA and RNA levels. It, in turn, will lead to an uninhibited growth of cells which increases the threat of cancer cell growth.
Excess nitrogen can hamper marine life too. Nitrogen, in its reactive state, is water soluble. Therefore, it can easily get mixed up with water bodies, encouraging the growth of a life form called the algal blooms. These algal blooms restrict light and oxygen from moving through the water surface and reaching marine life underneath.
There are even areas in the Gulf of Mexico where excess nitrogen has resulted in “marine dead” zones. One can only imagine the disastrous effects such Nitrogen excess can have on the biodiversity of an area.
While generally a non-threatening gas whose presence we barely notice, nitrogen is a highly impactful element as far as our survival and well-being are concerned. Thus, we must be careful with how we handle nitrogen. If we let its levels deplete, we will threaten our survival, and we will do the same if we let its levels increase beyond optimum levels. If unregulated, nitrogen can impose great danger on all forms of life.