The marine phosphorus cycle. Academic Article uri icon


  • Phosphorus, the 13th element to be discovered on our planet, has a rich and varied history spanning match-making, bombs, fertilizer, and pesticides. Entire islands economies (Nauru) have collapsed in the mad hunt for phosphorus rock (Gowdy and McDaniel, 1999). Mineral reserves of this critical and valuable element are now being so rapidly mined from our Earth's crust that we are approaching a point where demand exceeds supply (Cordell et al., 2009). Why such a storied element? The answer rests in the fact that phosphorus is an essential ingredient in every known recipe for life: it is integral for energy storage, cell structure, and the very genetic material that encodes all life on the planet. Phosphorus is in fact, the staff of life (Karl, 2000), the scaffolding on which all biomass is built. Just as phosphorus fertilizer supports the growth of agricultural crops, phosphorus supply supports the growth of photosynthetic organisms, or phytoplankton, at the base of the marine food web.

publication date

  • 2013