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335 West Ann Street
Ann Arbor, MI, 48104
United States

Threads All Arts Festival


New Years and Nitrogen

Karen Toomasian

We at Threads are excited to be with you all in the New Year (also known as the time you will write the date wrong on stuff)! The collective escape from 2017 and the great unknown of 2018 is made all the sweeter by the fact that Threads 2018 is only 9 weeks away! That’s 66 days, or 1584 hours, or 95,040 minutes, or 63,360 cooked bowls of oatmeal, if you get the kind that is called “minute oatmeal” but takes a minute-and-a-half. However you measure it, the festival is soon. In preparation for Threads 2018 we are working are little tookises off to make things happen. We are getting ready to give you all the line up, ticket info, some new merch, and other good stuff. But this is all for later. And now that I’ve told you about the things you can expect, but I can’t tell you anything about the things themselves, we’re going to have to change tacks and talk about nitrogen. Yes. Nitrogen.

Try to peel away all the layers of hatred for high school chemistry and put up with an over excited biologist talking about an element. Nitrogen is super important. Our bodies need it to make DNA, RNA, and, by extension, proteins. Basically, our bodies, and all other living and maybe non-living things, (looking at you viruses) use nitrogen to make this whole “life” thing happen. We need it to grow, move, digest, store genetic material, reproduce, and not die. This is why nitrogen is the most important ingredient in fertilizer.

At this stage you might be saying, “great, nitrogen makes it all happen. SO, if it is this important to life, it must be everywhere.” And you would be right, sort of. You may have heard, at some point, that the air we breathe isn’t just oxygen, in fact most of it is not oxygen. 78% of the earth’s atmosphere is actually nitrogen gas (N2, for all the nerds and :N≡N: for super-nerds). For comparison only 21% of the atmosphere is made up of that sweet, sweet oxygen that everyone is talking so much about.

“Great, nitrogen makes it all happen and the atmosphere is mostly nitrogen so we just breathe in and we’re all good, right?” This, unfortunately, is where things get a little bit tricky. Yes, the air that we breathe is mostly nitrogen gas, but the two nitrogen atoms that make up nitrogen gas are bound so tightly together (see the note for nerds and super-nerds above) that the nitrogen itself is basically unusable. This isn’t a problem for us animals; we just eat plants or other animals that eat plants to get our fix of nitrogen. But this is a huge problem for the plants that we get our nitrogen from. That bond is so tight that there are basically only two things that can break it: actual lightning going through the atmosphere ripping apart molecules, and bacteria. There are bacteria that live in/around the roots of plants and, in exchange for a spot to live and food, invest basically all their energy to break that nitrogen gas up into a form that is usable to their host plants. The host plants are totally willing to give the bacteria some of their food (read: carbon) in return for nitrogen, which the plants use to make everything from leaves to DNA. Sometimes an animal wanders along and eats the plant, getting that that sweet, sweet usable nitrogen in the process.

(As a side note for those who are interested: the nitrogen-fixing bacteria (the ones that make nitrogen gas from the atmosphere into usable nitrogen) are frequently associated with fungi, also on the plant roots. These fungi act as another step in the whole nitrogen-for-food trade-off pathway. Basically, the fungi make it easier for the bacteria to transform nitrogen gas into usable nitrogen, and the bacteria make it easier for the fungi to colonize the plant roots.)

So as a recap: nitrogen is in the air, but not in a way we can use it. Bacteria (or lightening) break it up into a usable form so plants can take it up and use it to photosynthesize and make leaves and other important stuff, like seeds, oats, DNA, and caffeine. Then along comes some animal that eats it. This is how animals get all the nitrogen that we need to make life happen and to make things like DNA, RNA, and art.

In the New Year we are thankful that you all care about Threads, we are excited to experience Threads 2018 with you, and we are indebted to the nitrogen that makes it all happen.