The evolution of the marine phosphate reservoir

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Phosphorus is a biolimiting nutrient that has an important role in regulating the burial of organic matter and the redox state of the ocean–atmosphere system1. The ratio of phosphorus to iron in iron-oxide-rich sedimentary rocks can be used to track dissolved phosphate concentrations if the dissolved silica concentration of sea water is estimated2, 3, 4, 5. Here we present iron and phosphorus concentration ratios from distal hydrothermal sediments and iron formations through time to study the evolution of the marine phosphate reservoir. The data suggest that phosphate concentrations have been relatively constant over the Phanerozoic eon, the past 542 million years (Myr) of Earth’s history. In contrast, phosphate concentrations seem to have been elevated in Precambrian oceans. Specifically, there is a peak in phosphorus-to-iron ratios in Neoproterozoic iron formations dating from ~750 to ~635Myr ago, indicating unusually high dissolved phosphate concentrations in the aftermath of widespread, low-latitude ‘snowball Earth’ glaciations. An enhanced postglacial phosphate flux would have caused high rates of primary productivity and organic carbon burial and a transition to more oxidizing conditions in the ocean and atmosphere. The snowball Earth glaciations and Neoproterozoic oxidation are both suggested as triggers for the evolution and radiation of metazoans6, 7. We propose that these two factors are intimately linked; a glacially induced nutrient surplus could have led to an increase in atmospheric oxygen, paving the way for the rise of metazoan life.

At a glance


  1. P/Fe molar ratios through time in iron-oxide-rich distal hydrothermal sediments and iron formations with low amounts of siliciclastic input.
    Figure 1: P/Fe molar ratios through time in iron-oxide-rich distal hydrothermal sediments and iron formations with low amounts of siliciclastic input.

    Open squares are individual samples; filled circles are formation averages. The P/Fe ratio reflects the size of the marine phosphate reservoir; phosphate sorption onto ferric oxyhydroxides follows a distribution coefficient (KD) relationship. The ratio is also influenced by the concentration of dissolved silica, because phosphate and silica hydroxides compete for sorption sites on ferric oxyhydroxides. Two outliers are not shown (P/Fe(100) = 8.6 90Myr ago and P/Fe(100) = 6.8 750Myr ago). See Supplementary Information for a box plot of the data.

  2. Model for the coevolution of atmospheric and oceanic redox state and limiting nutrients for marine primary productivity.
    Figure 2: Model for the coevolution of atmospheric and oceanic redox state and limiting nutrients for marine primary productivity.

    The redox model is from refs 10, 30. Phosphate concentrations are extrapolated from average P/Fe ratios for individual formations. Our compilation of P/Fe data suggests that there were elevated seawater phosphate concentrations in the Precambrian and a peak in phosphate levels associated with the Neoproterozoic snowball Earth glaciations. This late Precambrian increase in dissolved phosphorus concentration may have stimulated high rates of organic carbon burial and a corresponding increase in atmospheric oxygen levels—paving the way for the rise of metazoans. CFA, carbonate fluorapatite. Square brackets denote concentration.


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Author information


  1. Department of Earth Sciences, University of California, Riverside, California 92521, USA

    • Noah J. Planavsky,
    • Christopher T. Reinhard &
    • Timothy W. Lyons
  2. Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Noah J. Planavsky &
    • Olivier J. Rouxel
  3. Université Européene de Bretagne, European Institute for Marine Studies, Technopôle Brest-Iroise, Place Nicolas Copernic, 29280 Plouzané, France

    • Olivier J. Rouxel
  4. Department of Geological Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2, Canada

    • Andrey Bekker
  5. Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E3, Canada

    • Stefan V. Lalonde &
    • Kurt O. Konhauser


All authors were involved in the writing and design of this study. A.B. and N.J.P. collected samples for this study, and N.J.P. and O.J.R. analysed them. N.J.P. and S.L. compiled literature data.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary information

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  1. Supplementary Information (1.7M)

    This file contains Supplementary Text comprising Sample Information and Methods and additional references. The file also includes Supplementary Figures 1-2 with legends and Supplementary Tables 1-2 with their appropriate references.

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