Most nitrogen is found in the atmosphere. The nitrogen cycle is the process by which atmospheric nitrogen is converted to ammonia or nitrates.
Nitrogen is essential to all living systems. To become a part of an organism, nitrogen must first be fixed or combined with oxygen or hydrogen. Nitrogen is removed from the atmosphere by lightening and nitrogen fixing bacteria. During electrical storms, large amounts of nitrogen are oxidized and united with water to produce an acid which is carried to the earth in rain producing nitrates. Nitrates are taken up by plants and are converted to proteins.
Then the nitrogen passes through the food chain from plants to herbivores to carnivores. When plants and animals eventually die, the nitrogen compounds are broken down giving ammonia (ammonification). Some of the ammonia is taken up by the plants; some is dissolved in water or held in the soil where bacteria convert it to nitrates (nitrification). Nitrates may be stored in humus or leached from the soil and carried to lakes and streams. It may also be converted to free nitrogen (denitrification) and returned to the atmosphere.