4 Steps of Nitrogen Cycle: The Key to the Food Chain

Nitrogen Cycle

As part of the nitrogen cycle, nitrogen transforms into several different forms.

For example:

  • Nitrogen fixing converts N2 from the air into nitrates.
  • In reverse, denitrification converts nitrates back to N2 as a gas.
  • Finally, nitrification converts ammonia into nitrates.

In the grand scheme of things, these processes are essential in the food chain.

But what exactly is the nitrogen cycle? Let’s review the 4 major steps of the nitrogen cycle: nitrogen fixing, decomposition, nitrification and denitrification.

1 Nitrogen Fixing

Nutrient Cycle

In terms of atmosphere composition, nitrogen makes up about 78% of the air. Plants and animals need nitrogen to make proteins but they cannot take it in from the air. Because nitrogen is unreactive as a gas, it has to be transformed into a new molecule. When bacteria in the soil takes nitrogen from the air, it becomes nitrates and can move through the food chain.

For example, legume like clovers, peas and beans, their roots can take N2 from the air and transform into another form called nitrates. In addition, lightning transforms N2 into NO2, which goes into the soil to form nitrates. Also, synthetic fertilizer from farming can bring nitrate to the soil.

Overall, nitrogen fixation takes unreactive nitrogen from the air and fixes it into a usable form. Nitrogen is essential for building amino acids which are building blocks for DNA and RNA. Nitrogen is used to make amino acids for growth.

2 Decomposition and Ammonification

Nitrogen Cycle

After nitrogen fixation, roots of plants absorb the nitrate. In the plant, they are in the form of protein and nucleic acids. In turn, animals eat these plants who break them down.

When animals produce waste or die, this waste decays and bacteria consumes this dead organic matter. As a result, the nitrogen in this waste is in the form of ammonium (NH4+).

This is a key process in the nutrient cycle that constantly exchanges inorganic and organic matter back and forth in an environment.

READ MORE: Nutrient Cycle: From Inorganic to Organic

3 Nitrification

Soil Nutrients

However, it’s difficult for plants to use ammonium. So this waste (ammonium) is again broken down by bacteria through a process called “nitrification”.

Nitrification takes the ammonium and transforms it into nitrates in the soil. And again, plants can absorb nitrate and moves through the food chain.

If you deplete the soil from nitrogen, this deprives the plants from growing. Because bacteria convert dead plant material to nitrates, plants absorb it as food.

READ MORE: Tree Growth: How Plants Grow with Carbon Dioxide and Water

4 Denitrifying bacteria


But we need nitrogen back in the atmosphere, so we use another type of bacteria. There is a whole different process that does this.

Through the denitrification process, nitrates are converted nitrogen gas again. So it leaves the soil to go back into the atmosphere.

Overall, denitrification turns nitrates (NO3) in the soil to nitrogen (N2) which is returned to the air.

Highlights of the Nitrogen Cycle

nitrogen cycle diagram

This whole cycle how nitrogen transforms into different forms continues. Bacteria is essential in this process, as well as each process.

  • Nitrification converts ammonia into nitrates.
  • Denitrification converts nitrates to N2.
  • Nitrogen fixing converts N2 into nitrates.

The nitrogen cycle continues with these key three processes.

Not only is it a key ingredient for the roots of plants, but it’s essential in the food chain.

Earth is filled with cycles

Just like all cycles on Earth, nitrogen transforms into several different forms.

For example, nitrogen is up in the atmosphere as a gas. Then, it’s in the soil for the roots of plants to absorb. It constantly cycles in various states.

But the nitrogen cycle is just one of the many cycles that exist on Earth. The carbon cycle follows this same process as transforming into a gas.

If you’re interested in Earth’s cycles, then take a look at our infographic below.

Earth’s Cycles

Read the story of Earth’s cycles

Earth Cycles

2 thoughts on “4 Steps of Nitrogen Cycle: The Key to the Food Chain”

  1. I’m not a scientist, but this is a wonderfully easy to follow explanation, which now enables me to pass this on to a student I’m working with.
    Thank you- much appreciated!

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