The Nitrogen Cycle

The nitrogen cycle involves some basic concepts of biology and chemistry, but is a very important component in understanding the aquarium environment.  

When an organism dies, nitrogen is moved from plant or animal into the inorganic chemical ammonia by the process of bacterial decay.  Ammonia is also produced by bacteria in the breakdown of protein.  This is a called Mineralization and is the end result of the metabolism of food.  However, ammonia is produced from both metabolism and mineralization.

When components are missing, or conditions are inadequate,  the aquarium water soon becomes loaded with toxins such as nitrite, nitrate, proteins, bacterial toxins, and other organic matter.  Ignoring, or not understanding the fragility of this process is a major contributor to stress and death in the aquarium.

Ammonia does not last long in the aquarium environment, fortunately.  Nitrifying bacteria such as Nitrosomonas sp. and Nitrobacter sp. quickly break down ammonia into less toxic Nitrite (NO2) and Nitrate (NO3).  This nitrate can either be used by plants as a nutrient source, or can be further broken down into dinitrogen gas (N2) through the activity of anaerobic bacteria such as Pseudomonas sp.

Mother nature can pack a lot of bacteria into small places, which is advantageous to the aquarist.  For bacterial growth, all that is required is ammonia and oxygenated water.  This is the beginning of the nitrogen process and the growth of bacterial colonies.  Additional stable water conditions also contribute to this process (such as temp and pH).

Nitrogen is a necessary component of the aquarium system, and does fairly well in accumulation.  Nitrate buildup is tolerable to many species of fish and plants, however the reef, and community aquarist need to be careful to keep nitrate low due to the large amount of life, and need for bacterial colonies.

Allowing the proper growth of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria will greatly influence the efficacy of the biological filter and ultimately the nitrification of ammonia within the aquarium system.  Become familiar with the nitrogen cycle, utilize this information, and your aquarium will thank you.

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