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The entire universe can be broken down into its smallest molecular components, the elements. And one of the most important elements, vital for life itself, is nitrogen.

Nitrogen is among the top five most abundant elements in the universe, and it plays a central role in the code of life, DNA. In fact, the twentieth-century race to discover the structure of DNA involved solving a riddle that starred nitrogen.

DNA was first identified in 1869 by a Swiss chemist named Friedrich Miescher, who called the substance “nuclein.” It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that scientists realized DNA carried genetic information. In 1950, a chemist named Erwin Chargaff proved that DNA was made up of different nitrogen-containing bases, which are known as A, T, G, and C.

These base pairs contain the genetic code that differentiates each living creature and determines everything from eye color to toe shape. And each one contains multiple nitrogen molecules, bonded with carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

In the early 1950s, chemist Rosalind Franklin used X-ray crystallography to photograph DNA, unlocking the secret of DNA’s structure. When scientists James Watson and Francis Crick saw Franklin’s work, they set out to create a model of DNA using molecular building blocks representing A, T, G, and C, along with the bonds that held them together.

In 1953, Watson and Crick unveiled the “secret of life,” as Watson wrote in his memoir, The Double Helix. DNA and its nitrogen-containing bases coiled around the bonded nitrogenous bases as a double helix. The pair won a Nobel Prize in 1962 to celebrate their achievement.

The race to discover the structure of DNA unveiled the central role that nitrogen plays as a building block of life itself. Nitrogen also makes up 70% of the air we breathe, fertilizes plants to provide food, and plays a role in manufacturing steel, electronics, and pharmaceuticals. And nitrogen plays a starring role in an innovation improving the safety and durability of motor vehicles. By replacing the compressed air in car tires with nitrogen, drivers extend the life of their tires, save on gas, and improve vehicle handling. Fleet vehicles, NASCAR, and the military all use this method, which relies on the molecular properties of nitrogen.

Nitrogen may be one of the smallest elements, but it plays a major role in life itself.

Post Author: Genevieve Carlton Ph.D.

Ph.D. - Research Historian from Northwestern University. A writer and researcher she has published pieces for Ranker, Stacker and Atlas Obscura. She has published a nonfiction history book with the University of Chicago Press and a number of scholarly articles with top journals.

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