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The evolution of the marine phosphate reservoir



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 635 Myr 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.

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Figure 1: P/Fe molar ratios through time in iron-oxide-rich distal hydrothermal sediments and iron formations with low amounts of siliciclastic input.
Figure 2: Model for the coevolution of atmospheric and oceanic redox state and limiting nutrients for marine primary productivity.


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This work was supported by funding from the NSF-GSF program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute, to N.J.P.; from the NASA Exobiology Program and the NSF-EAR, to T.W.L.; from NSERC, to A.B., K.O.K. and S.V.L.; from NSF-OCE grants to O.J.R.; and from the NSF and the NASA Astrobiology Institute, to A.B.

Author information




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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Timothy W. Lyons.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

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. (PDF 1756 kb)

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Planavsky, N., Rouxel, O., Bekker, A. et al. The evolution of the marine phosphate reservoir. Nature 467, 1088–1090 (2010).

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