Nutrients are chemical substances found in every living thing on Earth


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Biology, Health

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Nutrients are chemical substances found in every living thing on Earth. They are necessary to the lives of people, plants, animals, and all other organisms. Nutrients help break down food to give organisms energy. They are used in every process of an organism’s body. Some of the processes are growth (building cells), repair (healing a wound), and maintaining life (breathing).

Plants and other autotrophs absorb nutrients from soil and water. Autotrophs are organisms that can make their own food. The most important nutrients they need are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Other nutrients needed by plants are nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur.

From these basic nutrients, plants and other autotrophs synthesize, or create, their own nutrients, such as sugars. The human body can also synthesize some nutrients, such as amino acids. However, most organisms need nutrients created by autotrophs. People and animals get most of their nutrients from food.

Essential nutrients are nutrients that the human body is unable to synthesize. They must be obtained from food or water. Essential nutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are all part of a group of essential nutrients called macronutrients. “Macro-” means large, and these are the nutrients humans need in the largest amounts. Foods that are high in macronutrients include potatoes, which are high in carbohydrates; nuts, which are high in proteins; and avocados, which are high in fats.

Each macronutrient supplies a specific amount of energy. We know how much energy is in a kind of food by how many calories it has. A calorie is a unit of energy. Think of calories like gallons of fuel in a tank: If your car can go 20 kilometers by using one gallon of fuel and you are taking a 40-kilometer trip, you know that you need two gallons of fuel. Calories are fuel in the human body.

Vitamins and minerals are part of a group of essential nutrients called micronutrients. “Micro-” means small; humans need micronutrients in small amounts. Vitamins have names like vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin D. Vitamins contain the element carbon, which means they are organic compounds. Minerals, such as calcium and iron, come from the earth or environment. Minerals do not contain carbon, meaning they are inorganic compounds.

Nutrients in the Environment

Nutrients accumulate, or build up, in the environment. Nutrient-rich soil or water contains large amounts of nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, sulfur, and potassium. These nutrients can come from natural sources, like plant and animal remains. As plants and animals die, they decompose. Decomposition releases nutrients into the environment.

Human activity also adds nutrients to soil and water. Many factories use nutrients to help preserve their products. Nutrients are either released as gas into the atmosphere, or as liquid. Either way, the nutrients enter the water cycle.

Sewage and wastewater are also full of nutrients such as carbon. Wastewater is often used on golf courses, where it enters local creeks as runoff. Treated wastewater is sometimes released directly into the environment.

Fertilizers, used in agriculture, are rich in carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Farmers use fertilizers on crops such as grains, fruits, and vegetables. Phosphorus-based fertilizers are also used on golf courses, parks, and even neighborhood lawns.

Fertilizer not absorbed by plants accumulates in the soil. Nutrients from fertilizer can also leech into groundwater or runoff. Nutrient-rich runoff flows into creeks, rivers, and bays. Ponds, lakes, and even the ocean can absorb huge amounts of nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus.

Balance of Nutrients

Nutrients such as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen make all life possible. Nutrient-poor areas cannot support much biodiversity. Bogs, for instance, are nutrient-poor wetlands found in cool climates. The soil of bogs is much more acidic than fertile, or nutrient-rich, soil. Few species of plants can grow in the nutrient-poor soil of bogs. With fewer species of plants available, the ecosystem is unable to support a large variety of other organisms, such as animals and fungi.

The introduction of nutrients into an environment can make the ecosystem healthy and fertile. Upwelling is the natural process of cold, nutrient-rich water being pushed to the upper layers of the ocean. Upwelling brings a huge supply of nutrients to fish, seaweeds, and marine mammals. Economic activity also depends on upwelling. The fisheries off the western coast of South America, for instance, depend on the annual upwelling of the Pacific Ocean to bring nutrients to fish and shellfish stocks.

Excess Nutrients

Although life depends on nutrients, too many nutrients can have a negative impact on an ecosystem. Algal blooms, for instance, are caused by excess nutrients. They can actually prevent the natural nutrient flow in an aquatic ecosystem.

Algal blooms form as excess nutrients, from natural and manmade sources, accumulate in a body of water. When the conditions are just right, algae, bacteria, and other microbes bloom, or multiply quickly. The rapid reproduction uses almost all the nutrients in the water. The bloom forms a thin mat near the surface of the water, preventing light from reaching below.

The organisms in many algal blooms are not eaten by other organisms, so they are not part of the food web. An algal bloom uses up important nutrients—including oxygen—without contributing to the aquatic environment. Some algal blooms even contain toxic microbes. This type of algal bloom is called a harmful algal bloom (HAB). Without light and oxygen, plants die quickly. An algal bloom uses up nutrients and prevents the development of plants that fish and other living things depend on for survival.

Algal blooms can die off as quickly as they form. The dead algae and other microbes sink to the bottom of the body of water. Sunlight and nutrients can once again enter the ecosystem. However, bacteria that help decay the algal bloom now absorb most of these nutrients. It can take weeks or even months for an ecosystem to recover from an algal bloom.

Algal blooms can reduce nutrients in an area to such a degree that the area is known as a dead zone. This means that few organisms can survive in the environment. Dead zones do not have enough nutrients to support a food web.

Excess Nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay

Dead zones are a frequent problem for the Chesapeake Bay, a huge estuary on the East Coast of the United States. This region is home to 13.6 million people. Its watershed includes the large urban areas of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore and Annapolis, Maryland.

The western corridor of the Chesapeake Bay is highly industrialized. The eastern corridor is home to many farming communities. Runoff from factories, homes, and farms has polluted the bay with excess nutrients.

The size and duration of dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay vary. They depend on the season and the weather. During heavy rains, more nutrients are washed into the bay. During the spring and summer, farms fertilize their crops, leading to more nutrient runoff. About one-third of the excess nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay is the result of air pollution. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon and nitrogen into the air. Eventually, these nutrients return to the soil and water through the water cycle.

People and businesses can control the nutrients they release. At home, people can help by using phosphorus-free fertilizer and preventing lawn waste from washing into the gutter. Native plants help filter water and stop debris from washing into a watershed. Making sure septic systems don’t have leaks, safely disposing of household chemicals (like paint and batteries), and minimizing activities that erode soil also help prevent algal blooms.

Factories and farms can help control the amount of nutrients released into the environment by following safety standards and reducing runoff.

Fast Fact

Blue-Green Algae
Blue-green algae is not blue-green, or even algae. The organism, also known as pond scum and cyanobacteria, is a bacterium that can be blue, green, reddish-purple, or brown.

Fast Fact

The most common elements on Earth are also the most important nutrients for plants. These nutrients are often grouped together by the acronym CHNOPS (shnahps). The letters stand for the elements chemical abbreviations: C (carbon), H (hydrogen), N (nitrogen), O (oxygen), P (phosphorus), and S (sulfur).

Media Credits

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Hilary Costa
Erin Sprout
Santani Teng
Melissa McDaniel
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Kim Rutledge
Hilary Hall
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 5, 2024

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