Plant and Soil

, Volume 108, Issue 1, pp 7–14 | Cite as

Biological nitrogen fixation: A scientific perspective

  • R. H. Burris


The discoveries of Hellriegel and Wilfarth ended the period of controversy about the existence of biological N2 fixation and launched a period featuring the agronomic application of the inoculation of legumes. Serious studies of the biochemistry of N2 fixation started in the late 1920's, and defined some of the basic properties of the N2-fixing system. Application of15N as a tracer gave definitive evidence for the role of ammonia as the key intermediate in biological N2 fixation. It was demonstrated in the 1950's and 1960's that nitrogenase could reduce substrates other than N2. With the achievement of consistent cell-free N2 fixation it was possible to resolve the nitrogenase system into two proteins, electron donors, and ATP-hydrolyzing and regenerating systems. The sequence of electron transfer was established. Recently, studies of the genetics of the nitrogenase system have defined in detail how the system is assembled and controlled.

Key words

applications biochemistry discoveries nitrogen fixation 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Bach A N, Jermolieva Z V and Stepanian M P 1934 Fixation de l'azote atmosphérique per l'intermédiaire d'enzymes extraites de cultures d'Azotobacter chroococcum. Compt. rend. acad. sci (USSR) 1, 22–24.Google Scholar
  2. Baker D, Torrey J and Kidd G 1979 Isolation by sucrose-density fractionation and cultivation in vitro of actinomycetes from nitrogen-fixing root nodules. Nature 281, 76–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bishop P E, Jarlenski D M L and Hetherington D R 1980 Evidence for an alternative nitrogen fixation system inAzotobacter vinelandii. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 77, 7342–7346.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Bui P T and Mortenson L E 1968 Mechanism of the enzymic reduction of N2: the binding of adenosine 5′-triphosphate and cyanide to the N2-reducing system. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 61, 1021–1027.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Bulen W A 1976 Nitrogenase fromAzotobacter vinelandii and reactions affecting mechanistic interpretations.In Proc. Int. Symp. Nitrogen Fixation, 1st, 1974 Eds. W E Newton and C J Nyman pp 177–186. Wash. State Univ. Press.Google Scholar
  6. Burk D and Burris R H 1941 Biochemical nitrogen fixation. Annu. Rev. Biochem. 10, 587–618.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burris R H 1942. Distribution of isotopic nitrogen inAzotobacter vinelandii. J. Biol. Chem. 143, 509–517.Google Scholar
  8. Carnahan J E, Mortenson L E, Mower H F and Castle J E 1960 Nitrogen fixation in cell-free extracts ofClostridium pasteurianum. Biochim. biophys. Acta 44, 520–535.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Dilworth M J 1966 Acetylene reduction by nitrogen-fixing preparations fromClostridium pasteurianum. Biochim. Biophys. Acta 127, 285–294.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Emerich D W and Burris R H 1978 Complementary functioning of the component proteins of nitrogenase from several bacteria. J. Bacteriol. 134, 936–943.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Fred E B, Baldwin I L and McCoy E 1932 Root Nodule Bacteria and Leguminous Plants. Univ. Wis. Press, 343 pp.Google Scholar
  12. Guth J H and Burris R H 1983 Inhibition of nitrogenase catalyzed NH3 formation by H2. Biochemistry 22, 5111–5122.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Hageman R V and Burris R H 1978 Nitrogenase and nitrogenase reductase associate and dissociate with each catalytic cycle. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 75, 2699–2702.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Hageman R V and Burris R H 1980 Electron allocation to alternative substrates of Azotobacter nitrogenase is controlled by the electron flux through dinitrogenase. Biochim. Biophys. Acta 591, 63–75.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Hardy R W F, Burns R C and Parshall G W 1971 The biochemistry of N2 fixation.In Bioinorganic Chemistry. Ed. R F Gould, Am. Chem. Soc. Publ. Washington, D.C. pp. 219–247.Google Scholar
  16. Kamen M D and Gest H 1949 Evidence for a nitrogenase system in the photosynthetic bacteriumRhodospirillum rubrum. Science 109, 560.Google Scholar
  17. Lambert G R, Cantrell M A, Hanus F J, Russell S A, Haddad K R and Evans H J 1985 Intra- and interspecies transfer and expression ofRhizobium japonicum hydrogen uptake genes and autotrophic growth capability. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 82, 3232–3236.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Ludden, P W and Burris R H 1979 Removal of an adenine-like molecule during activation of dinitrogenase reductase fromRhodospirillum rubrum. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 76, 6201–6205.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. McKenna C E and Huang C W 1979In vivo reduction of cyclopropene byAzotobacter vinelandii nitrogenase. Nature (London) 280, 609–611.Google Scholar
  20. McNary J E and Burris R H 1962 Energy requirements for nitrogen fixation by cell-free preparations fromClostridium pasteurianum. J. Bacteriol. 84, 598–599.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Mozen M M and Burris R H 1954 The incorporation of15N-labelled nitrous oxide by nitrogen fixing agents. Biochim. Biophys. Acta 14, 577–578.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Phelps A S and Wilson P W 1941 Occurrence of hydrogenase in nitrogen-fixing organisms. Proc. Soc. Exp. Biol. Med 47, 473–76.Google Scholar
  23. Schoenheimer R 1942 The Dynamic State of Body Constituents. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 78 pp.Google Scholar
  24. Schöllhorn R and Burris R H 1966 Study of intermediates in nitrogen fixation. Fed. Proc. 25, 710.Google Scholar
  25. Simpson F B and Burris R H 1984 A nitrogen pressure of 50 atmospheres does not prevent evolution of hydrogen by nitrogenase. Science 224, 1095–1097.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Tso M-YW and Burris R H 1973 The binding of ATP and ADP by nitrogenase components fromClostridium pasteurianum. Biochim. Biophys. Acta 309, 263–270.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Tso M-YW. Lyones T and Burris R H 1972 Purification of the nitrogense proteins fromClostridium pasteurianum. Biochim. Biophys. Acta 267, 600–604.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Urey H C, Fox M, Huffman J R and Thode H G 1937 A concentration of N15 by a chemical exchange reaction. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 59, 1407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Vandecasteele J P and Burris R H 1970 Purification and properties of the constituents of the nitrogenase complex fromClostridium pasteurianum. J. Bacteriol. 101, 794–801.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Virtanen A I 1938 Cattle Fodder and Human Nutrition. Cambridge Univ. Press, London, 108 pp.Google Scholar
  31. Wilson P W 1940 The Biochemistry of Symbiotic Nitrogen Fixation. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 302 pp.Google Scholar
  32. Wilson P W and Burris R H 1947 The mechanism of biological nitrogen fixation. Bact. Rev. 11, 41–73.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Winter H C and Burris R H 1968 Stoichiometry of the adenosine triphosphate requirement for N2 fixation and H2 evolution by a partially purified preparation ofClostridium pasteurianum. J. Biol. Chem. 243, 940–944.PubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. H. Burris
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biochemistry College of Agricultural and Life SciencesUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

Personalised recommendations