A biogeochemical cycle is the pathway by which a chemical substancecycles (is turned over or moves through) the biotic and the abiotic compartments of Earth. The biotic compartment is the biosphere and the abiotic compartments are the atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere. There are biogeochemical cycles for chemical elements, such as for calcium, carbon, hydrogen, mercury, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, selenium, iron and sulfur, as well as molecular cycles, such as for water and silica. There are also macroscopic cycles, such as the rock cycle, and human-induced cycles for synthetic compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). In some cycles there are reservoirs where a substance can remain or be sequestered for a long period of time.
Energy flows directionally through ecosystems, entering as sunlight (or inorganic molecules for chemoautotrophs) and leaving as heat during the many transfers between trophic levels. However, the matter that makes up living organisms is conserved and recycled. The six most common elements associated with organic molecules—carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur—take a variety of chemical forms and may exist for long periods in the atmosphere, on land, in water, or beneath the Earth’s surface. Geologic processes, such as weathering, erosion, water drainage, and the subduction of the continental plates, all play a role in this recycling of materials. Because geology and chemistry have major roles in the study of this process, the recycling of inorganic matter between living organisms and their environment is called a biogeochemical cycle.
The six aforementioned elements are used by organisms in a variety of ways. Hydrogen and oxygen are found in water and organic molecules, both of which are essential to life. Carbon is found in all organic molecules, whereas nitrogen is an important component of nucleic acids and proteins. Phosphorus is used to make nucleic acids and the phospholipids that comprise biological membranes. Sulfur is critical to the three-dimensional shape of proteins. The cycling of these elements is interconnected. For example, the movement of water is critical for leaching sulfur and phosphorus into rivers which can then flow into oceans. Minerals cycle through the biosphere between the biotic and abiotic components and from one organism to another.
Ecological systems (ecosystems) have many biogeochemical cycles operating as a part of the system, for example, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, etc. All chemical elements occurring in organisms are part of biogeochemical cycles. In addition to being a part of living organisms, these chemical elements also cycle through abiotic factors of ecosystems such as water (hydrosphere), land (lithosphere), and/or the air (atmosphere).
The living factors of the planet can be referred to collectively as the biosphere. All the nutrients—such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur—used in ecosystems by living organisms are a part of a closed system; therefore, these chemicals are recycled instead of being lost and replenished constantly such as in an open system.
The diagram on the right shows a generalised biogeochemical cycle. The major parts of the biosphere are connected by the flow of chemical elements and compounds. In many of these cycles, the biota plays an important role. Matter from the Earth’s interior is released by volcanoes. The atmosphere exchanges some compounds and elements rapidly with the biota and oceans. Exchanges of materials between rocks, soils, and the oceans are generally slower by comparison.
The flow of energy in an ecosystem is an open system; the sun constantly gives the planet energy in the form of light while it is eventually used and lost in the form of heat throughout the trophic levels of a food web. Carbon is used to make carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, the major sources of food energy. These compounds are oxidized to release carbon dioxide, which can be captured by plants to make organic compounds. The chemical reaction is powered by the light energy of the sun.
Sunlight is required to combine carbon with hydrogen and oxygen into an energy source, but ecosystems in the deep sea, where no sunlight can penetrate, obtain energy from sulfur. Hydrogen sulfide near hydrothermal vents can be utilized by organisms such as the giant tube worm. In the sulfur cycle, sulfur can be forever recycled as a source of energy. Energy can be released through the oxidation and reduction of sulfur compounds (e.g., oxidizing elemental sulfur to sulfite and then to sulfate).
Examples of major biogeochemical processes
The implications of shifts in the global carbon cycle due to human activity are concerning scientists.
Although the Earth constantly receives energy from the sun, its chemical composition is essentially fixed, as the additional matter is only occasionally added by meteorites. Because this chemical composition is not replenished like energy, all processes that depend on these chemicals must be recycled. These cycles include both the living biosphere and the nonliving lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere.