I received this note from Cory Tobin several months ago. It was part of an email chain started by our mutual friend, Mac Cowell. Mac told me that Cory was working on an an interesting biology project that began in his apartment, and was now flourishing at the LA Biohackers space. I had to know more.

I referenced Cory’s project in a previous post about the different types of amateurs who are redefining and re-imagining citizen science and exploration.


Here’s Cory:

September 9 Cory Tobin 9/9, 1:54am

OK, I don’t want to make any assumptions about your bio/chem knowledge so I’ll just give you my typical spiel starting from the basics. Don’t be offended if you already know this stuff. Anyways, here it is…

All living stuff needs nitrogen to build proteins. Nitrogen is quite abundant in the atmosphere (78%) but it’s in the form of N2 which is a very stable molecule, so using it directly is near impossible. Humans get some nitrogen from plant proteins or more so from meat which, while the meat was still alive, got it from eating plants. Most plants get nitrogen from the soil either in the form of ammonium, nitrates, free amino acids or to a lesser degree, nitrites. These compounds are mostly the result of other decaying organisms. But where did it come from originally? At some point someone had to get it from the atmosphere, otherwise there would be a net loss as these nitrogen-containing compounds are washed into the ocean or converted into nitrogen gas and return to the atmosphere.