Nitrogen is a chemical element with symbol N and atomic number 7. It is the lightest pnictogen and at room temperature, it is a transparent, odorless diatomic gas. Nitrogen is a common element in the universe, estimated at about seventh in total abundance in the Milky Way and the Solar System. On Earth, the element forms about 77% of Earth’s atmosphere and as such is the most abundant pure element. The element nitrogen was discovered as a separable component of air, by Scottish physician Daniel Rutherford, in 1772. Many industrially important compounds, such as ammonia, nitric acid, organic nitrates (propellants and explosives), and cyanides, contain nitrogen. The extremely strong triple bond in elemental nitrogen (N≡N) dominates nitrogen chemistry, causing difficulty for both organisms and industry in converting the N2 into useful compounds, but at the same time causing release of large amounts of often useful energy when the compounds burn, explode, or decay back into nitrogen gas. Synthetically-produced ammonia and nitrates are key industrial fertilizers and fertilizer nitrates are key pollutants in causing the eutrophication of water systems. Outside their major uses as fertilizers and energy-stores, nitrogen compounds are versatile organics. Nitrogen is part of materials as diverse as Kevlar fabric and cyanoacrylate “super” glue. Nitrogen is a constituent of molecules in every major pharmacological drug class, including antibiotics. Many drugs are mimics or prodrugs of natural nitrogen-containing signal molecules: for example, the organic nitrates nitroglycerin and nitroprusside control blood pressure by being metabolized to natural nitric oxide. Plant alkaloids (often defense chemicals) contain nitrogen by definition, and thus many notable nitrogen-containing drugs, such as caffeine and morphine are either alkaloids or synthetic mimics that act (as many plant alkaloids do) upon receptors of animal neurotransmitters (for example, synthetic amphetamines). Nitrogen occurs in all organisms, primarily in amino acids (and thus proteins) and also in the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA). The human body contains about 7% by mass of nitrogen, the fourth most abundant element in the body after oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen. The nitrogen cycle describes movement of the element from the air, into the biosphere and organic compounds, then back into the atmosphere.
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