Denitrification: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Denitrification
  • 1:04 Soil & Denitrification
  • 1:54 Negative Aspects
  • 3:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brekke Peterson Munks
In this lesson, you'll learn about denitrification, its relationship to the nitrogen cycle, what's responsible for it, why it happens and what it means for humans and the environment.


All life on the planet relies on nitrogen. Nitrogen, a chemical element, is used by microbes, plants and animals to live. However, nitrogen is recycled in a process called the nitrogen cycle. This process has many steps, but perhaps the most important step is denitrification. Denitrification is the last step in the nitrogen cycle where the reduction of soil nitrate to nitrogen-containing gases, such as nitric oxide, nitrous oxide, and nitrogen gas, takes place.

Denitrification relies on microbial activity to break apart nitrogen-containing elements. Microbes consume nitrate to produce energy, but in the process, denitrification occurs and nitrogen is reduced. Specifically, soil microbes utilize nitrate as the terminal electron acceptor to form nitrite in a process called reduction. Nitrite is further reduced to nitric oxide then to nitrous oxide and then nitrogen gas.

Soil and Denitrification

As previously explained, microbes are responsible for denitrification. More specifically, soil bacteria that can live in a variety of environments and withstand great heat, large amounts of salt in the soil and generally can survive when oxygen is present or when it's not present. This is the main reason why these soil microbes use nitrate as an electron acceptor because oxygen is not always accessible.

In the soil environment, where denitrification takes place, sometimes oxygen is depleted. This is due to the addition of large amounts of water to the soil, causing the soil to be saturated and making oxygen unable to diffuse. This can be a result of rainfall causing flooding, increased irrigation, or rapid snow melt. A great of rule of thumb is if water is ponded, denitrification in the soil is likely to occur.

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