THE NITROGEN CYCLE
Contrary to popular belief, the air we breathe is not primarily oxygen; by far the greatest portion of air is composed of nitrogen. A colorless, odorless gas noted for its lack of chemical reactivity—that is, its tendency not to bond with other elements—nitrogen plays a highly significant role within the earth system. Both through the action of lightning in the sky and of bacteria in the soil, nitrogen is converted to nitrites and nitrates, compounds of nitrogen and oxygen that are then absorbed by plants to form plant proteins. The latter convert to animal proteins in the bodies of animals who eat the plants, and when an animal dies, the proteins are returned to the soil. Denitrifying bacteria break down these compounds, returning elemental nitrogen to the atmosphere.