All known forms of life require phosphorus, and biological processes strongly influence the global phosphorus cycle1. Although the record of life on Earth extends back to 3.8 billion years ago2 and the advent of biological phosphate processing can be tracked to at least 3.5 billion years ago3, the earliest known P-rich deposits appeared only 2 billion years ago4,5. The onset of P deposition has been attributed to the rise of atmospheric oxygen 2.4–2.3 billion years ago and the related profound biogeochemical shifts6,7,8,9, which increased the riverine input of phosphate to the ocean and boosted biological productivity and phosphogenesis5,10. However, the P-rich deposits post-date the rise of oxygen by about 300 million years. Here we use microfabric, trace element and carbon isotope analyses to assess the environmental setting and redox conditions of the 2-billion-year-old P-rich deposits of the vent- or seep-influenced Zaonega Formation, northwest Russia. We identify phosphatized microorganism fossils that resemble modern methanotrophic archaea and sulphur-oxidizing bacteria, analogous to organisms found in modern seep settings and upwelling zones with a sharp redoxcline11,12. We therefore propose that the P-rich deposits in the Zaonega Formation were formed by phosphogenesis mediated by sulphur bacteria, similar to modern sites13, and by the precipitation of calcium phosphate minerals on microbial templates during early diagenesis.

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This study was undertaken in the frame of the FAR-DEEP and was supported by the International Continental Drilling Program, Geological Survey of Norway, Centre for Geobiology of Bergen University, Norwegian Research Council grant 191530/V30, Estonian Science Foundation grants ESF8774 and SF0180069S08 and Natural Environment Research Council grant NE/G00398X/1. We thank V. A. Melezhik for coordinating the FAR-DEEP, M. Mesli for managing the FAR-DEEP sample archive and L. Kump for providing unpublished carbon isotope data on FAR-DEEP core 13A.

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Author notes

    • Adam P. Martin

    Present address: GNS Science, Private Bag 1930, 9054 Dunedin, New Zealand


  1. Geological Survey of Norway, 7491 Trondheim, Norway

    • Aivo Lepland
    •  & Alenka E. Črne
  2. Tallinn University of Technology, Institute of Geology, 19086 Tallinn, Estonia

    • Aivo Lepland
  3. Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate, University of Tromsø, 9037 Tromsø, Norway

    • Aivo Lepland
  4. University of Tartu, Department of Geology, 50411 Tartu, Estonia

    • Lauri Joosu
    • , Kalle Kirsimäe
    • , Peeter Somelar
    • , Kärt Üpraus
    •  & Kaarel Mänd
  5. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9AL Scotland, UK

    • Anthony R. Prave
  6. Institute of Geology, Karelian Science Centre, Pushkinskaya 11, 185610 Petrozavodsk, Russia

    • Alexander E. Romashkin
  7. Ivan Rakovec Institute of Paleontology, ZRC SAZU, SI-1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia

    • Alenka E. Črne
  8. NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, British Geological Survey, Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG, UK

    • Adam P. Martin
    •  & Nick M. W. Roberts
  9. Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, Rankine Avenue, Scottish Enterprise Technology Park, East Kilbride, G75 0QF Scotland, UK

    • Anthony E. Fallick
  10. Géobiosphère Actuelle et Primitive, Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris– Sorbonne-Paris Cité, Université Paris Diderot, UMR 7154, CNRS, 1 rue Jussieu, 75238 Paris cedex 5, France

    • Mark A. van Zuilen
  11. GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam, Telegrafenberg, Chemistry and Physics of Earth Materials, D-14473 Potsdam, Germany

    • Richard Wirth
    •  & Anja Schreiber


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A.L. and K.K. conceived the study; A.E.R., A.L., L.J., A.R.P., A.E.Č. and A.P.M. carried out field work and sample collection; L.J., K.K., P.S., K.Ü., K.M., N.M.W.R., A.P.M. and A.L. carried out mineralogic, petrographic geochemical analyses; A.E.F. and L.J. carried out carbon isotope analyses, R.W., M.A.v.Z., A.S., L.J., K.M. and A.L. carried out TEM analyses. All authors contributed to the interpretation of results and the writing and editing of the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Aivo Lepland.

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