Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Dusty starburst galaxies in the early Universe as revealed by gravitational lensing



In the past decade, our understanding of galaxy evolution has been revolutionized by the discovery that luminous, dusty starburst galaxies were 1,000 times more abundant in the early Universe than at present1,2. It has, however, been difficult to measure the complete redshift distribution of these objects, especially at the highest redshifts (z > 4). Here we report a redshift survey at a wavelength of three millimetres, targeting carbon monoxide line emission from the star-forming molecular gas in the direction of extraordinarily bright millimetre-wave-selected sources. High-resolution imaging demonstrates that these sources are strongly gravitationally lensed by foreground galaxies. We detect spectral lines in 23 out of 26 sources and multiple lines in 12 of those 23 sources, from which we obtain robust, unambiguous redshifts. At least 10 of the sources are found to lie at z > 4, indicating that the fraction of dusty starburst galaxies at high redshifts is greater than previously thought. Models of lens geometries in the sample indicate that the background objects are ultra-luminous infrared galaxies, powered by extreme bursts of star formation.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Near-infrared and ALMA submillimetre-wavelength images of SPT targets.
Figure 2: ALMA 3 mm spectra of 26 SPT sources.
Figure 3: The cumulative redshift distribution of luminous dusty starburst galaxies, as measured with different techniques.


  1. Lagache, G., Puget, J.-L. & Dole, H. Dusty infrared galaxies: sources of the cosmic infrared background. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 43, 727–768 (2005)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Chapman, S. C., Blain, A. W., Smail, I. & Ivison, R. J. A redshift survey of the submillimeter galaxy population. Astrophys. J. 622, 772–796 (2005)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Carlstrom, J. E. et al. The 10 meter South Pole Telescope. Publ. Astron. Soc. Pacif. 123, 568–581 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Vieira, J. D. et al. Extragalactic millimeter-wave sources in South Pole Telescope survey data: source counts, catalog, and statistics for an 87 square-degree field. Astrophys. J. 719, 763–783 (2010)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Blain, A. W. & Longair, M. S. Submillimetre cosmology. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 264, 509–521 (1993)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Moshir, M., Kopman, G., Conrow, T. A. O., eds. IRAS Faint Source Survey, Explanatory Supplement Version 2 (Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, California Institute of Technology, 1992)

  7. Bock, D. C.-J., Turtle, A. J. & Green, A. J. A high-resolution radio survey of the Vela supernova remnant. Astron. J. 116, 1886–1896 (1998)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Blain, A. W. Galaxy-galaxy gravitational lensing in the millimetre/submillimetre waveband. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 283, 1340–1348 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Negrello, M. et al. Astrophysical and cosmological information from large-scale submillimetre surveys of extragalactic sources. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 377, 1557–1568 (2007)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hezaveh, Y. D. & Holder, G. P. Effects of strong gravitational lensing on millimeter-wave galaxy number counts. Astrophys. J. 734, 52–59 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Hezaveh, Y. D. et al. ALMA observations of strongly lensed submillimeter galaxies. Astrophys. J. (submitted)

  12. Ivison, R. J. et al. Deep radio imaging of the SCUBA 8-mJy survey fields: submillimetre source identifications and redshift distribution. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 337, 1–25 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Coppin, K. E. K. et al. A submillimetre galaxy at z = 4.76 in the LABOCA survey of the Extended Chandra Deep Field-South. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 395, 1905–1914 (2009)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Walter, F. et al. The intense starburst HDF 850.1 in a galaxy overdensity at z ≈ 5.2 in the Hubble Deep Field. Nature 486, 233–236 (2012)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Solomon, P. M. & Vanden Bout, P. A. Molecular gas at high redshift. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 43, 677–725 (2005)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Capak, P. et al. Spectroscopic confirmation of an extreme starburst at redshift 4.547. Astrophys. J. 681, L53–L56 (2008)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Daddi, E. et al. Two bright submillimeter galaxies in a z = 4.05 protocluster in GOODS-North, and accurate radio-infrared photometric redshifts. Astrophys. J. 694, 1517–1538 (2009)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Daddi, E. et al. A CO emission line from the optical and near-IR undetected submillimeter galaxy GN10. Astrophys. J. 695, L176–L180 (2009)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Riechers, D. A. et al. A massive molecular gas reservoir in the z = 5.3 submillimeter galaxy AzTEC-3. Astrophys. J. 720, L131–L136 (2010)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Cox, P. et al. Gas and dust in a submillimeter galaxy at z = 4.24 from the Herschel atlas. Astrophys. J. 740, 63–72 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Combes, F. et al. A bright z = 5.2 lensed submillimeter galaxy in the field of Abell 773. HLSJ091828.6+514223. Astron. Astrophys. 538, L4–L7 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Greve, T. R. et al. Submillimeter observations of millimeter bright galaxies discovered by the South Pole Telescope. Astrophys. J. 756, 101–113 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Weiß, A. et al. ALMA redshifts of millimeter selected galaxies from the SPT survey. Astrophys. J. (in the press)

  24. Smolcic, V. et al. Millimeter imaging of submillimeter galaxies in the COSMOS field: redshift distribution. Preprint at (2012)

  25. Baugh, C. M. et al. Can the faint submillimetre galaxies be explained in the Λ cold dark matter model? Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 356, 1191–1200 (2005)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Benson, A. J. GALACTICUS: a semi-analytic model of galaxy formation. N. Astron. 17, 175–197 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Banerji, M. et al. Luminous starbursts in the redshift desert at z 1 – 2: star formation rates, masses and evidence for outflows. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 418, 1071–1088 (2011)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The SPT is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Kavli Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. ALMA is a partnership of ESO (representing its member states), NSF (USA) and NINS (Japan), together with NRC (Canada) and NSC and ASIAA (Taiwan), in cooperation with Chile. The Joint ALMA Observatory is operated by ESO, AUI/NRAO and NAOJ. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the NSF operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. Partial support for this work was provided by NASA from the Space Telescope Science Institute. This work is based in part on observations made with Herschel, a European Space Agency Cornerstone Mission with significant participation by NASA. Work at McGill University is supported by NSERC, the CRC programme and CIfAR.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.D.V. and D.P.M. wrote the text. S.C.C. took and reduced optical images and spectroscopy. A.W., C.D.B. and D.P.M. analysed the ALMA spectra. D.P.M., J.S.S. and Y.D.H. analysed the ALMA imaging data. J.D.V. reduced and analysed the Herschel data. Y.D.H. constructed the lens models. C.D.F. reduced optical images. All other authors (listed alphabetically) have contributed as part of the South Pole Telescope collaboration, by their involvement with the construction of the instrument, the initial discovery of the sources, multi-wavelength follow-up, and/or contributions to the text.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. D. Vieira.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text and Supplementary Figures 1-3. (PDF 2919 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Vieira, J., Marrone, D., Chapman, S. et al. Dusty starburst galaxies in the early Universe as revealed by gravitational lensing. Nature 495, 344–347 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing