There are in all cultivated soils forms of bacteria which are capable of forcing the inert free nitrogen to combine with other elements into compounds assimilable by plants. This was long asserted as probable before Winogradsky showed that the conclusions of M. P. E. Berthelot, A. Laurent and others were right, and that Clostridium pasteurianum, for instance, if protected from access of free oxygen by an envelope of aerobic bacteria or fungi, and provided with the carbohydrates and minerals necessary for its growth, fixes nitrogen in proportion to the amount of sugar consumed. This interesting case of symbiosis is equalled by yet another case. The work of numerous observers has shown that the free nitrogen of the atmosphere is brought into combination in the soil in the nodules filled with bacteria on the roots of Leguminosae, and since these nodules are the morphological expression of a symbiosis between the higher plant and the bacteria, there is evidently here a case similar to the last.
As regards the ammonium carbonate accumulating in the soil from the conversion of urea and other sources, we know from Winogradsky's researches that it undergoes oxidation in two stages owing to the activity of the so-called "nitrifying" bacteria (an unfortunate term inasmuch as "nitrification" refers merely to a particular phase of the cycle of changes undergone by nitrogen). It had long been known that under certain conditions large quantities of nitrate (saltpetre) are formed on exposed heaps of manure, etc., and it was supposed that direct oxidation of the ammonia, facilitated by the presence of porous bodies, brought this to pass. But research showed that this process of nitrification is dependent on temperature, aeration and moisture, as is life, and that while nitre-beds can infect one another, the process is stopped by sterilization. R. Warington, J. T. Schloessing, C. A. Müntz and others had proved that nitrification was promoted by some organism, when Winogradsky hit on the happy idea of isolating the organism by using gelatinous silica, and so avoiding the difficulties which Warington had shown to exist with the organism in presence of organic nitrogen, owing to its refusal to nitrify on gelatine or other nitrogenous media.
Winogradsky's investigations resulted in the discovery that two kinds of bacteria are concerned in nitrification; one of these, which he terms the Nitroso-bacteria, is only capable of bringing about the oxidation of the ammonia to nitrous acid, and the astonishing result was obtained that this can be done, in the dark, by bacteria to which only pure mineral salts - e.g. carbonates, sulphates and chlorides of ammonium, sodium and magnesium - were added. In other words these bacteria can build up organic matter from purely mineral sources by assimilating carbon from carbon dioxide in the dark and by obtaining their nitrogen from ammonia. The energy liberated during the oxidation of the nitrogen is regarded as splitting the carbon dioxide molecule, - in green plants it is the energy of the solar rays which does this. Since the supply of free oxygen is dependent on the activity of green plants the process is indirectly dependent on energy derived from the sun, but it is none the less an astounding one and outside the limits of our previous generalizations.
It has been suggested that urea is formed by polymerization of ammonium carbonate, and formic aldehyde is synthesized from CO and OH. The Nitro-bacteria are smaller, finer and quite different from the nitroso-bacteria, and are incapable of attacking and utilizing ammonium carbonate. When the latter have oxidized ammonia to nitrite, however, the former step in and oxidize it still further to nitric acid. It is probable that important consequences of these actions result from the presence of nitrifying bacteria in rotten stone, decaying bricks, etc., where all the conditions are realized for preparing primitive soil, the breaking up of the mineral constituents being a secondary matter. That "soil" is thus prepared on barren rocks and mountain peaks may be concluded with some certainty.
Fig. 14. - Stages in the formation of a colony of a variety of Bacillus (Proteus) vulgaris (Hauser), observed in a hanging drop. At 11 A.M. a rodlet appeared (A); at 4 P.M. it had grown and divided and broken up into eight rodlets (B); C shows further development at 8 P.M., D at 9.30 P.M. - all under a high power. At E, F, and G further stages are drawn, as seen under much lower power. (H. M. W.)
In addition to the bacterial actions which result in the oxidization of ammonia to nitrous acid, and of the latter to nitric acid, the reversal of such processes is also brought about by numerous bacteria in the soil, rivers, etc. Warington showed some time ago that many species are able to reduce nitrates to nitrites, and such reduction is now known to occur very widely in nature. The researches of Gayon and Dupetit, Giltay and Aberson and others have shown, moreover, that bacteria exist which carry such reduction still further, so that ammonia or even free nitrogen may escape. The importance of these results is evident in explaining an old puzzle in agriculture, viz. that it is a wasteful process to put nitrates and manure together on the land. Fresh manure abounds in de-nitrifying bacteria, and these organisms not only reduce the nitrates to nitrites, even setting free nitrogen and ammonia, but their effect extends to the undoing of the work of what nitrifying bacteria may be present also, with great loss.
The combined nitrogen of dead organisms, broken down to ammonia by putrefactive bacteria, the ammonia of urea and the results of the fixation of free nitrogen, together with traces of nitrogen salts due to meteoric activity, are thus seen to undergo various vicissitudes in the soil, rivers and surface of the globe generally. The ammonia may be oxidized to nitrites and nitrates, and then pass into the higher plants and be worked up into proteids, and so be handed on to animals, eventually to be broken down by bacterial action again to ammonia; or the nitrates may be degraded to nitrites and even to free nitrogen or ammonia, which escapes.