The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded University of Rochester Associate Prof. of Chemistry Patrick Holland $1.2 million to study how nitrogen gas is transformed into ammonia (NH3), a crucial chemical process that allows plants to absorb the nutrients they need to survive.
Nitrogen is a vital element in all living organisms. It is a building block of molecules such as DNA, RNA, and proteins. It is also the most prevalent gas in the air we breathe. However, in its standard form – bonded pairs of nitrogen atoms (N2) – it is not usable by organisms because it is extremely stable and does not react with other compounds due to the strong bonds between the atoms.
In nature, bacteria that carry enzymes called nitrogenases break down the nitrogen pairs and transform them into a usable form, ammonia. Artificial chemical processes such as the Haber-Bosch process emulate this reaction for the commercial production of fertilizer.
With the funding provided by the four-year NIH grant, Holland will study the unknown chemical mechanisms by which these nitrogenase enzymes accomplish their task. The term of the grant is June 2010 to May 2014.