Major role of planktonic phosphate reduction in the marine phosphorus redox cycle

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Science  15 May 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6236, pp. 783-785
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa8181

The phosphorus redox cycle

Phosphorus in the oceans cycles between +5 and +3 oxidation states. Most of the oceans' phosphorus is present as oxidized bioavailable phosphate (+5) compounds. Reduced organophosphorus compounds are also present but at much lower concentrations. Through field measurements in the western tropical North Atlantic Ocean and a series of laboratory incubations, Van Mooy et al. measured fast reduction rates of a small but appreciable amount of phosphates by plankton communities, forming phosphites and phosphonates (see the Perspective by Benitez-Nelson). On a global scale, this phosphorus redox cycle adds as much reduced phosphorus to the oceans as all pre-anthropogenic land runoff.

Science, this issue p. 783; see also p. 759


Phosphorus in the +5 oxidation state (i.e., phosphate) is the most abundant form of phosphorus in the global ocean. An enigmatic pool of dissolved phosphonate molecules, with phosphorus in the +3 oxidation state, is also ubiquitous; however, cycling of phosphorus between oxidation states has remained poorly constrained. Using simple incubation and chromatography approaches, we measured the rate of the chemical reduction of phosphate to P(III) compounds in the western tropical North Atlantic Ocean. Colonial nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria in surface waters played a critical role in phosphate reduction, but other classes of plankton, including potentially deep-water archaea, were also involved. These data are consistent with marine geochemical evidence and microbial genomic information, which together suggest the existence of a vast oceanic phosphorus redox cycle.

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