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RICHLAND, Wash. – Nitrogen is essential for life, but nature's main source of nitrogen is the gas found in our atmosphere — a gas that does not react easily with other elements. Some specialized bacteria turn the air's nitrogen molecules into ammonia so that it can be used to make proteins — the building blocks, machines and power plants of cells. A little over a century ago, chemists developed a way of making ammonia industrially out of atmospheric nitrogen, but the man-made process uses a lot of energy.
A better understanding of how bacteria fix nitrogen molecules into ammonia could lead to energy savings in industrial processes such as those that produce fertilizer. Researchers are studying the bacterial enzyme that does this, a complicated enzyme called nitrogenase. In new work, researchers discovered essential information about the manner in which nitrogenase produces ammonia, according to work published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.