The nitrogen problem?
- [Not sure I completely understood this, but given the tendency toward
large scale systems thinking on this list, I thought you all might find
it intriguing -SD]
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To: "Discussions of Die-Off, PeakOil, The Singularity, etc" <the_singularity@...>
Subject: Re: Touching the void
Date: Thu, 29 Jul 2004 12:38:06 -0400 (EDT)
Old-Subject: Re: [The_Singularity] Touching the void
On Thu, 29 Jul 2004, Steve Dodd wrote:
> As the human population explodes, other species are running out of food
> and space. But, Tim Radford reports, it was never supposed to be that
> Thursday July 22, 2004 The Guardian
> [ ... ] There is scatter on the graph: there are always,
> for instance, more herbivores than carnivores; more prey than predators.
> A leopard and a gazelle are about the same mass but gazelles probably
> outnumber leopards by 100 to one. Even so, the rule holds true, except
> for humans. If there is a biological rule about population size, humans
> have broken it. How did we do it?
> "Well, we are able to do that because we are able to use fossil fuel. We
> sustain our society and our population density and are able to live in
> places at densities that are actually unsustainable without an energy
> subsidy," Lawton says.
> "And what that allows us to do is grow food, because our crop production
> is oil-powered; we rely hugely on fossil fuel to grow food, over huge
> areas of the world. The reason you and I can sit here having a lively
> intelligent conversation without having to worry where our lunch is
> going to come from is because modern farming uses fossil fuel to
> increase hugely the efficiency with which an individual farmer can
> produce food for thousands of people. We are therefore able to use this
> fossil fuel subsidy to destroy the habitats of most of the other
> creatures on the planet."
I mentioned this elsewhere online just the other day...
A friend of mine had pointed out that he wasn't entirely sure about the
accuracy of his statistics and couldn't instantly point to a citation, but
his belief was that something like 70% of the nitrogen fixed in humans and
their livestock had been fixed since the mid-20th century, by the Haber
I went on, in my UseNet article, to wonder what might happen if there were
some sort of crash of technical civilization. Regardless of what happened
to people, the impacts of "nitrogen pollution" on the ecosphere might be
rather amazing. Witness the results of "nitrogen saturation" and "nitrogen
pollution" on the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay; they have rather
large "dead zones" from which oxygen has been almost totally, or totally,
depleted. This causes a great deal of disruption in the local ecologies as
you might expect.
I made an estimate of something like 40% of extant mammalian biomass being
human-produced (Haber-process fixed nitrogen) and I thought it a bit high.
I'm astonished by this article's estimates which make my own estimate
appear to be low by at least an order of magnitude.
Already, humanity controls or diverts some 54% of the non-saline/non-ice
hydrosphere flows. But to discover that we may have actually impounded
significant fractions of the atmosphere's nitrogen is worrisome. We may or
may not have fixed so much nitrogen that the "global protein budget" -- a
concept coined at this instant by me -- might be double of what could
possibly be sustained on natural annual energy inputs alone. In effect, we
might very well have been, albeit inefficiently, converting fossil fuels
to protein at a level far beyond unsupportable. What will happen to all of
that nitrogen and those organic nitrogen compounds one civilization
crashes and we can't continue to fix such huge volumes with the
electricity-based Haber process? We'll definitely all need to be on the
Atkins diet, and in all likelihood the only meat left to eat will be that
of other carnivores, as the herbivores might very well all starve is
nitrogen of decomposition is released back into the atmosphere instead of
being plowed into the ground as fertilizers, or runs off into the dying
oceans, which would then be even less able to act as a sink for
carbon-dioxide in the form of calcium carbonate seashells.
"We look through a glass but darkly:
What we see is more colored by our beliefs,
than what we believe is colored by what we see."
The_Singularity mailing list
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"We have the beginning of a new age. The earth 'gets a new skin.' Better
still, it finds its soul." -- Teilhard de Chardin
> A friend of mine had pointed out that he wasn't entirely sure about thet
> accuracy of his statistics and couldn't instantly point to a citation, bu=
> his belief was that something like 70% of the nitrogen fixed in humans an=d
> their livestock had been fixed since the mid-20th century, by the HaberI'm not sure what "nitrogen fixed in humans" means...
but I found this.
Nitrogen molecules occur mainly in air. In water and soils nitrogen can be=
nitrates and nitrites. All of these substances are a part of the nitrogen c=
ycle, whereas there
are all interconnected.
Humans have changed natural nitrate and nitrite proportions radically, main=
ly due to the
application of nitrate-containing manures. Nitrogen is emitted extensively =
companies, increasing the nitrate and nitrite supplies in soil and water as=
of reactions that take place in the nitrogen cycle. Nitrate concentrations =
in drinking water
will greatly increase due to this.
Nitrates and nitrites are known to cause several health effects. These are =
most common effects:
- Reactions with haemoglobin in blood, causing the oxygen carrying capacity=
of the blood
to decrease (nitrite)
- Decreased functioning of the thyroid gland (nitrate)
- Shortages of vitamin A (nitrate)
- Fashioning of nitrosamines, which are known as one of the most common cau=
cancer (nitrates and nitrites)
But from a metabolic point of view, nitric oxide (NO) is much more importa=
nitrogen alone. In 1987, Salvador Moncada discovered that this was a vital=
messenger for relaxing muscles, and today we know that it is involved in t=
cardiovascular system, the immune system, the central nervous system and t=
nervous system. The enzyme that produces nitric oxide, called nitric oxide=
abundant in the brain.
Although nitric oxide is relatively short-lived, it can diffuse through me=
mbranes to carry
out its functions. In 1991, a team headed by K.E.Anderson of Lund Univers=
Sweden, showed that nitric oxide activates an erection by relaxing the mus=
controls the flow of blood into the penis. The drug Viagra works by releas=
ing nitric oxide
to produce the same effect.
- nitrogen cycle, the continuous flow of nitrogen through the biosphere by the processes of
nitrogen fixation, ammonification (decay), nitrification, and denitrification. Nitrogen is vital
to all living matter, both plant and animal; it is an essential constituent of amino acids,
which form proteins of nucleic acids, and of many other organic materials.
Although the earth's atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, free gaseous nitrogen cannot be utilized
by animals or by higher plants. They depend instead on nitrogen that is present in the soil.
To enter living systems, nitrogen must be "fixed" (combined with oxygen or hydrogen)
into compounds that plants can utilize, such as nitrates or ammonia. A certain amount of
atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by lightning and by some cyanobacteria (blue-green algae).
But the great bulk of nitrogen fixation is performed by soil bacteria of two kinds: those
that live free in the soil and those that live enclosed in nodules in the roots of certain
leguminous plants (e.g., alfalfa, peas, beans, clover, soybeans, and peanuts). Among the
free-living forms are species of Clostridium, discovered c.1893 by Sergei Winogradsky,
and Azotobacter, discovered c.1901 by M. W. Beijerinck. Both Clostridium and Azotobacter
are generally present in agricultural soils, and both are saprophytes, i.e., they use the
energy from decaying organic matter in the soil to fuel soil processes, including nitrogen
Bacteria that live in the roots of legumes are of the genus Rhizobium, first isolated c.1888
by Beijerinck. These rod-shaped bacteria enter the roots chiefly through the root hairs and
then work their way to the inner root tissues. There they stimulate the growth of tumorlike
nodules. Within the nodules the bacteria develop into forms called bacteroids, which live in
a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with the green plant. The bacteroids take
carbohydrates from the plant for energy to fix nitrogen and synthesize amino acids; the
plants take the amino acids elaborated in the nodule to build plant tissue. Animals in turn
consume the plants and convert plant protein into animal protein. Rhizobia can be found
free-living in the soil, but they cannot fix nitrogen in the free state, nor can the legume
root fix nitrogen without Rhizobia.
The exact biochemistry of nitrogen fixation within the nodule is not yet understood. It is
estimated that more than 300 lbs of nitrogen per acre (340 kg per hectare) can be fixed by
fields of alfalfa and other legumes. After a harvest legume roots left in the soil decay,
returning organic nitrogen compounds to the soil for uptake by the next generation of
plants. For this reason crop rotation in which a leguminous crop is rotated with a
nonleguminous one is a common practice for maintaining soil fertility.
Other Aspects of the Nitrogen Cycle
Decomposing animal remains and animal wastes also return organic nitrogen to the soil as
ammonia. Many different kinds of decay microorganisms participate in ammonification.
The nitrifying bacteria of the genus Nitrosomonas oxidize the ammonia to nitrites, and
Nitrobacter oxidize the nitrites to nitrates. The nitrates can then be taken up again by the
green plant. The cycle of fixation-decay-nitrification-fixation can proceed indefinitely
without any nitrogen being returned to a gaseous state. But still another group of
microorganisms, the denitrifying bacteria, can reduce nitrates all the way to molecular
nitrogen. Denitrification occurs only in the absence of oxygen and is not common in well-
Effects of Artificial Fixation
Nitrogen fixation can also be accomplished artificially by various methods (see nitrogen).
Humans annually fix vast amounts of nitrogen for industrial purposes and for use as
fertilizer. Unfortunately, large-scale legume cultivation and artificial fixation may be
upsetting the natural nitrogen cycle in the biosphere. There is some question whether
natural denitrification can keep pace with fixation. For one thing, run-off of nitrate
fertilizer can cause eutrophication of lakes and streams (see water pollution) and can foul
drinking supplies. Another environmental problem is that inorganic fertilizers tend to
depress legume fixation. As a consequence, root tissue remaining after harvest is poorer,
and thus more fertilizer must be applied the following year.