Geology

P in All Its Guises

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Science  23 May 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5879, pp. 989
DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5879.989a

Phosphorus is the rarest of the major biological nutrients on Earth, tending to be locked up primarily in a few rather insoluble minerals. Nonetheless, it plays a key role in biological processes and metabolism, feeds primary production in the oceans and plants on land, and is required to form bones, teeth, and some shells. Rampant soil fertilization and industrial use have conversely led to the problem of too much phosphorus in many rivers and estuaries, where it is difficult to remove.

Filippelli considers the long-term geological cycling of phosphorus and how this critical element gets released to the environment over time or sequestered. Erosion enhances the release of phosphorus, which makes its way to the oceans. Records of past marine phosphorus concentrations and biological productivity suggest that the formation and uplift of the Himalayas may have thus fueled ocean productivity ∼20 million years ago; similar arguments have been proposed for glacial cycles. Further in the past, the relation between enhanced erosion and thick sequences of phosphorus marine rocks remains unclear. Today, the phosphorus cycle is dominated by human activities; we have doubled the natural riverine load globally. As discussed by Oelkers and Valsami-Jones, further use at this rate may soon run up against the limited geological supply. — BH

Elements 4, 89; 83 (2008).

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