Researchers uncover a piece of nature's secret nitrogen formula

Pulling nitrogen from the air to make fertilizer is one of the biggest commercial chemical enterprises in the world, involving a complex process of heating dangerously combustible hydrogen under very high pressures. Meanwhile, in the ground just outside these nitrogen-fixation factories, tiny bacteria are also pulling nitrogen from the air-but they are doing it at room temperature and at everyday pressures while being every bit as efficient as the factories. Now a team of researchers thinks it's found a key piece of the puzzle that lets these microorganisms best the world's biggest chemical production business.

"Nature figured out how to fix nitrogen a billion years before we did," says Patrick Holland, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester and author of the research published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. "We're just playing catch-up." Bacteria called azotrophs on the roots of plants take nitrogen from the air and "fix" it, turning it and hydrogen into ammonia that plants use to make DNA and proteins. Animals get nitrogen for their DNA by eating plants, so the very basis of most life on Earth depends on a few bacteria living on the roots of plants.

Since the early part of the 20th century when chemist Fritz Haber discovered that iron can be used on a large scale to fix nitrogen, iron has been recognized as playing an important role as a catalyst. Bacteria also use iron, but Holland has found that the way in which bacteria's iron is bonded may be the key to how nature can fix nitrogen without the pressures and temperatures the man-made process demands.

Holland originally set out to investigate the fundamental chemistry of iron compounds that have three atoms attached to each iron, but an unexpected chemical reaction shed light on nature's secret nitrogen formula. Since the compounds he was studying would likely react with air and water, Jeremy Smith, a postdoctoral fellow worki

Contact: Jonathan Sherwood
University of Rochester

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