Letter | Published:

Black-hole-regulated star formation in massive galaxies

Nature volume 553, pages 307309 (18 January 2018) | Download Citation


Supermassive black holes, with masses more than a million times that of the Sun, seem to inhabit the centres of all massive galaxies1,2. Cosmologically motivated theories of galaxy formation require feedback from these supermassive black holes to regulate star formation3. In the absence of such feedback, state-of-the-art numerical simulations fail to reproduce the number density and properties of massive galaxies in the local Universe4,5,6. There is, however, no observational evidence of this strongly coupled coevolution between supermassive black holes and star formation, impeding our understanding of baryonic processes within galaxies. Here we report that the star formation histories of nearby massive galaxies, as measured from their integrated optical spectra, depend on the mass of the central supermassive black hole. Our results indicate that the black-hole mass scales with the gas cooling rate in the early Universe. The subsequent quenching of star formation takes place earlier and more efficiently in galaxies that host higher-mass central black holes. The observed relation between black-hole mass and star formation efficiency applies to all generations of stars formed throughout the life of a galaxy, revealing a continuous interplay between black-hole activity and baryon cooling.

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We acknowledge support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) grants AST-1616598 and AST-1616710, from a Marie Curie Global Fellowship, from SFB 881 ‘The Milky Way System’ (subprojects A7 and A8) funded by the German Research Foundation, and from grants AYA2016-77237-C3-1-P and AYA2014-56795-P from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (MINECO). G.v.d.V. acknowledges funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 724857 (Consolidator Grant ArcheoDyn). A.J.R. was supported as a Research Corporation for Science Advancement Cottrell Scholar. I.M.-N. thanks the TRACES group and M. Mezcua for their comments, R. van den Bosch for making the HETMGS data publicly available and A. Boecker for her help.

Author information


  1. University of California Observatories, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA

    • Ignacio Martín-Navarro
    •  & Aaron J. Romanowsky
  2. Max-Planck Institut für Astronomie, Konigstuhl 17, D-69117 Heidelberg, Germany

    • Ignacio Martín-Navarro
    • , Jean P. Brodie
    •  & Glenn van de Ven
  3. Department of Physics and Astronomy, San José State University, One Washington Square, San Jose, California 95192, USA

    • Aaron J. Romanowsky
  4. Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, E-38205 La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain

    • Tomás Ruiz-Lara
  5. Departamento de Astrofísica, Universidad de La Laguna, E-38200 La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain

    • Tomás Ruiz-Lara
  6. European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Strasse 2, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany

    • Glenn van de Ven


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I.M.-N. derived the star formation histories along with T.R.-L. and wrote the text. J.P.B., A.J.R., T.R.-L. and G.v.d.V. contributed to the interpretation and analysis of the results.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ignacio Martín-Navarro.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks D. Rosario, J. Trump and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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