Liebig (1–3) wrote in the 1840s, at the time when he killed the humus theory (the concept that plants obtain carbon from humus in soil rather than from the air), that plants require water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and ash as constituents. Liebig supported the theory that plants obtained nitrogen as ammonium from the air, and his failure to include nitrogen in his “patent manure” was a weakness of the product. Plants will absorb ammonia at low concentrations from the air, but most air contains unsubstantial amounts of ammonia relative to that which is needed for plant nutrition.
The concept that nitrogen was acquired from the air or from soil organic matter was dismissed in the mid-1800s, as it was shown that crop yields rose as a result of fertilization of soil. Using laboratory methods of de Saussure, Boussingault (1), in field research of 1838, developed balances of carbon, dry matter, and mineral matter in crops. Boussingault established a special position for legumes in nitrogen nutrition, a position that Liebig did not support (1). Other research also showed that different nitrogen fertilizers varied in their effectiveness for supporting crop production, with potassium nitrate often being a better fertilizer than ammonium salts (1). Microbial transformations of nitrogen in the soil made it doubtful as to which source was actually the best and which form of nitrogen entered into plants. Studies made with sterile media and in water culture demonstrated that plants may utilize nitrate or ammonium and that one or the other might be superior depending on the species and other conditions. At the time when much of this research was performed, organic fertilizers (farm manures) and gas-water (ammonia derived from coal gases) were the only ones that were cost-effective, considering the value of farm crops and the cost of the fertilizers. With the development of the Haber process in 1909 for the synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen gases, ammonia could be made cheaply, leading to the development of the nitrogen fertilizer industry.
The recognition of the importance of nitrogen in plants predates much of the relatively modernday research of de Saussure and others. It was written as early as the 1660s and 1670s (1,3) that plants benefitted from nitre or saltpeter (potassium nitrate), that plants accumulated nitre, and that the fertility of the land with respect to nitre affected the quality of crops for storage and yields of sugar.
© 2018 Biocyclopedia | All rights reserved.