Star formation in half of massive galaxies was quenched by the time the Universe was 3 billion years old1. Very low amounts of molecular gas seem to be responsible for this, at least in some cases2,3,4,5,6,7, although morphological gas stabilization, shock heating or activity associated with accretion onto a central supermassive black hole are invoked in other cases8,9,10,11. Recent studies of quenching by gas depletion have been based on upper limits that are insufficiently sensitive to determine this robustly2,3,4,5,6,7, or stacked emission with its problems of averaging8,9. Here we report 1.3 mm observations of dust emission from 6 strongly lensed galaxies where star formation has been quenched, with magnifications of up to a factor of 30. Four of the six galaxies are undetected in dust emission, with an estimated upper limit on the dust mass of 0.0001 times the stellar mass, and by proxy (assuming a Milky Way molecular gas-to-dust ratio) 0.01 times the stellar mass in molecular gas. This is two orders of magnitude less molecular gas per unit stellar mass than seen in star forming galaxies at similar redshifts12,13,14. It remains difficult to extrapolate from these small samples, but these observations establish that gas depletion is responsible for a cessation of star formation in some fraction of high-redshift galaxies.
This is a preview of subscription content
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Data that support the findings of this study are publicly available through the ALMA Science Archive under project codes 2018.1.00276.S and 2019.1.00227.S and the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescope under project code HST-GO-15663 (including additional archival data from project codes HST-GO-9722, HST-GO-9836, HST-SNAP-11103, HST-GO-11591, HST-GO-12099, HST-GO-12100, HST-SNAP-12884, HST-GO-13459, HST-SNAP-14098, HST-GO-14205, HST-GO-14496, HST-SNAP-15132 and HST-GO-15466). All HST and ALMA mosaics are publicly available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5009315. Derived data and codes supporting the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request. Source data are provided with this paper.
Muzzin, A. et al. The evolution of the stellar mass functions of star-forming and quiescent galaxies to z=4 from the COSMOS/UltraVISTA survey. Astrophys. J. 777, 18 (2013).
Sargent, M. et al. A direct constraint on the gas content of a massive, passively evolving elliptical galaxy at z = 1.43. Astrophys. J. 806, 20 (2015).
Spilker, J. et al. Molecular gas contents and scaling relations for massive, passive galaxies at intermediate redshifts from the LEGA-C survey. Astrophys. J. 860, 103 (2018).
Bezanson, R. et al. Extremely low molecular gas content in a compact, quiescent galaxy at z = 1.522. Astrophys. J. 873, 19 (2019).
Zavala, J. et al. On the gas content, star formation efficiency, and environmental quenching of massive galaxies in protoclusters at z ~ 2.0-2.5. Astrophys. J. 887, 183 (2019).
Caliendo, J. et al. Early science with the large millimeter telescope: constraining the gas fraction of a compact quiescent galaxy at z = 1.883. Astrophys. J. Lett. 910, L7 (2021).
Williams, C. et al. ALMA measures rapidly depleted molecular gas reservoirs in massive quiescent galaxies at z~1.5. Astrophys. J. 908, 54 (2021).
Gobat, R. et al. The unexpectedly large dust and gas content of quiescent galaxies at z>1.4. Nat. Astron. 2, 239–246 (2018).
Magdis, G. et al. The interstellar medium of quiescent galaxies and its evolution with time. Astron. Astrophys. 647, 33 (2021).
Suess, K. et al. Massive quenched galaxies at z~0.7 retain large molecular gas reservoirs. Astrophys. J. 846, 14 (2017).
Hayashi, M. et al. Molecular gas reservoirs in cluster galaxies at z = 1.46. Astrophys. J. 856, 118 (2018).
Tacconi, L. et al. High molecular gas fractions in normal massive star-forming galaxies in the young Universe. Nature 463, 781–784 (2010).
Genzel, R. et al. Combined CO and dust scaling relations of depletion time and molecular gas fractions with cosmic time, specific star-formation rate, and stellar mass. Astrophys. J. 800, 20 (2015).
Tacconi, L. et al. PHIBSS: unified scaling relations of gas depletion time and molecular gas fractions. Astrophys. J. 853, 179 (2018).
Ebeling, H. et al. Thirty-fold: extreme gravitational lensing of a quiescent galaxy at z=1.6. Astrophys. J. 852, 7 (2018).
Newman, N. et al. Resolving quiescent galaxies at z>2. I. Search for gravitationally lensed sources and characterization of their structure, stellar populations, and line emission. Astrophys. J. 862, 125 (2018).
Toft, S. et al. A massive, dead disk galaxy in the early Universe. Nature 546, 510–513 (2017).
Man, A. et al. An exquisitely deep view of quenching galaxies through the gravitational lens: Stellar population, morphology, and ionized gas. Preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/2106.08338 (2021).
Scoville, N. et al. ISM masses and the star formation law at Z = 1 to 6: ALMA observations of dust continuum in 145 galaxies in the COSMOS survey field. Astrophys. J. 820, 83 (2016).
Tadaki, K. et al. Bulge-forming galaxies with an extended rotating disk at z ~ 2. Astrophys. J. 824, 175 (2017).
Saintonge, A. et al. xCOLD GASS: the complete IRAM 30 m legacy survey of molecular gas for galaxy evolution studies. Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 233, 22 (2017).
Li, Z. et al. The evolution of the interstellar medium in post-starburst galaxies. Astrophys. J. 879, 131 (2019).
Thomas, D. et al. The epochs of early-type galaxy formation as a function of environment. Astrophys. J. 621, 673 (2005).
Valentino, F. et al. Quiescent galaxies 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang and their progenitors. Astrophys. J. 889, 93 (2020).
Lagos, C. et al. The origin of the atomic and molecular gas contents of early-type galaxies. II. Misaligned gas accretion. Mon. Notices R. Astron. Soc. 448, 1271–1287 (2015).
Dave, R. et al. SIMBA: cosmological simulations with black hole growth and feedback. Mon. Notices R. Astron. Soc. 486, 2827–2849 (2019).
Keres, D. et al. How do galaxies get their gas? Mon. Notices R. Astron. Soc. 363, 2–28 (2005).
Dekel, A. et al. Cold streams in early massive hot haloes as the main mode of galaxy formation. Nature 457, 451–454 (2009).
Whitaker, K. et al. Constraining the low-mass slope of the star formation sequence at 0.5 < z < 2.5. Astrophys. J. 775, 104 (2014).
Ciotti, L. et al. Radiative feedback from massive black holes in elliptical galaxies: AGN flaring and central starburst fueled by recycled gas. Astrophys. J. 665, 1038–1056 (2007).
Akhshik, M. et al. Recent star formation in a massive slowly quenched lensed quiescent galaxy at z = 1.88. Astrophys. J. Lett. 907, L8 (2021).
Dekel, A. & Birnboim, Y. Galaxy bimodality due to cold flows and shock heating. Mon. Notices R. Astron. Soc. 368, 2–20 (2006).
Cheung, E. et al. Suppressing star formation in quiescent galaxies with supermassive black hole winds. Nature 533, 504–508 (2016).
Whitaker, K. et al. Quiescent galaxies in the 3D-HST survey: spectroscopic confirmation of a large number of galaxies with relatively old stellar populations at z~2. Astrophys. J. Lett. 770, 39 (2013).
Johansson, P. et al. Gravitational heating helps make massive galaxies red and dead. Astrophys. J. Lett. 697, L38–L43 (2009).
Chabrier, G. Galactic stellar and substellar initial mass function. Publ. Astron. Soc. Pac. 115, 763–795 (2003).
Akhshik, M. et al. REQUIEM-2D methodology: spatially resolved stellar populations of massive lensed quiescent galaxies from Hubble Space Telescope 2D grism spectroscopy. Astrophys. J. 900, 184 (2020).
Calzetti, D. et al. The dust content and opacity of actively star-forming galaxies. Astrophys. J. 533, 682–695 (2000).
Bruzual, G., & Charlot, S. Stellar population synthesis at the resolution of 2003. Mon. Notices R. Astron. Soc. 344, 1000–1028 (2003).
Lee, B. et al. The intrinsic characteristics of galaxies on the SFR-M* plane at 1.2 < z < 4. I. The correlation between stellar age, central density, and position relative to the main sequence. Astrophys. J. 853, 131 (2018).
Salmon, B. et al. Breaking the curve with CANDELS: a Bayesian approach to reveal the non-universality of the dust-attenuation law at high redshift. Astrophys. J. 827, 20 (2016).
Salim, S. et al. Dust attenuation curves in the local universe: demographics and new laws for star-forming galaxies and high-redshift analogs. Astrophys. J. 859, 11 (2018).
Leja, J. et al. An older, more quiescent universe from panchromatic SED fitting of the 3D-HST survey. Astrophys. J. 877, 140 (2019).
Conroy, C., Gunn, J., & White, M. The propagation of uncertainties in stellar population synthesis modeling. I. The relevance of uncertain aspects of stellar evolution and the initial mass function to the derived physical properties of galaxies. Astrophys. J. 699, 486–506 (2009).
Kriek, M., & Conroy, C. The dust attenuation law in distant galaxies: evidence for variation with spectral type. Astrophys. J. Lett. 775, 16 (2013).
Johansson, D., Sigurdarson, H. & Horellou, C. A LABOCA survey of submillimeter galaxies behind galaxy clusters. Astron. Astrophys. 527, 117 (2011).
Greve, T. et al. Submillimeter observations of millimeter bright galaxies discovered by the South Pole Telescope. Astrophys. J. 756, 101 (2012).
Scoville, N. et al. The evolution of interstellar medium mass probed by dust emission: ALMA observations at z = 0.3–2. Astrophys. J. 783, 84 (2014)
Zhang, C. et al. Nearly all massive quiescent disk galaxies have a surprisingly large atomic gas reservoir. Astrophys. J. Lett. 884, 52 (2019).
Sage, L. et al. The cool ISM in elliptical galaxies. I. A survey of molecular gas. Astrophys. J. 657, 232–240 (2007).
Li, Q. et al. The dust-to-gas and dust-to-metal ratio in galaxies from z = 0 to 6. Mon. Notices R. Astron. Soc. 490, 1425–1436 (2019).
Smercina, A. et al. After the fall: the dust and gas in E+A post-starburst galaxies. Astrophys. J. 855, 51 (2018).
Morishita, T. et al. Extremely low molecular gas content in the vicinity of a red nugget galaxy at z = 1.91. Astrophys. J. 908, 163 (2021).
Smith, M. et al. The Herschel Reference Survey: dust in early-type galaxies and across the Hubble sequence. Astrophys. J. 748, 123 (2012).
Saintonge, A. et al. Validation of the equilibrium model for galaxy evolution to z~3 through molecular gas and dust observations of lensed star-forming galaxies. Astrophys. J. 778, 2 (2013).
Franco, M. et al. GOODS-ALMA: the slow downfall of star formation in z = 2-3 massive galaxies. Astron. Astrophys. 643, 30 (2020).
Tacconi, L. et al. Submillimeter galaxies at z~2: evidence for major mergers and constraints on lifetimes, IMF, and CO-H2 conversion factor. Astrophys. J. 680, 246–262 (2008).
Daddi, E. et al. Very high gas fractions and extended gas reservoirs in z = 1.5 disk galaxies. Astrophys. J. 713, 686–707 (2010).
Silverman, J. et al. A higher efficiency of converting gas to stars pushes galaxies at z~1.6 well above the star-forming main sequence. Astrophys. J. Lett. 812, L23 (2015).
Decarli, R. et al. The ALMA Spectroscopic Survey in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field: molecular gas reservoirs in high-redshift galaxies. Astrophys. J. 833, 70 (2016).
Rudnick, G. et al. Deep CO(1-0) observations of z = 1.62 cluster galaxies with substantial molecular gas reservoirs and normal star formation efficiencies. Astrophys. J. 849, 27 (2017).
Spilker, J. et al. Low gas fractions connect compact star-forming galaxies to their z~2 quiescent descendants. Astrophys. J. 832, 19 (2016).
Aravena, M. et al. The ALMA Spectroscopic Survey in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field: the nature of the faintest dusty star-forming galaxies. Astrophys. J. 901, 79 (2020).
This paper makes use of ADS/JAO.ALMA 2018.1.00276.S and ADS/JAO.ALMA 2019.1.00227.S ALMA data. ALMA is a partnership of the European Southern Observatory (ESO; representing its member states), NSF (USA) and NINS (Japan), together with NRC (Canada), MOST and ASIAA (Taiwan) and KASI (Republic of Korea), in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. The Joint ALMA Observatory is operated by ESO, AUI/NRAO and NAOJ. The NRAO is a facility of the NSF operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities. This work uses observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, obtained at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, under NASA contract NAS 5-26555. K.E.W. wishes to acknowledge funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, HST-GO-14622 and HST-GO-15663. C.C.W. acknowledges support from the NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Fellowship grant AST-1701546 and from the NIRCam Development Contract NAS50210 from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to the University of Arizona. S.T. acknowledges support from the ERC Consolidator Grant funding scheme (project ConTExt, grant no. 648179), F.V. from the Carlsberg Foundation Research Grant CF18-0388, and G.E.M. from the Villum Fonden research grant 13160. The Cosmic Dawn Center is funded by the Danish National Research Foundation under grant no. 140. C.P. is supported by the Canadian Space Agency under a contract with NRC Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics. M.A. acknowledges support from NASA under award no. 80NSSC19K1418. J.S.S. is a NHFP Hubble Fellow supported by NASA Hubble Fellowship grant no. HF2-51446 awarded by the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, for NASA, under contract NAS5-26555. A.M. is supported by a Dunlap Fellowship at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, funded through an endowment established by the David Dunlap family and the University of Toronto. D.N. acknowledges support from the NSF via AST-1908137.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Nature thanks Claudia Maraston 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.
About this article
Cite this article
Whitaker, K.E., Williams, C.C., Mowla, L. et al. Quenching of star formation from a lack of inflowing gas to galaxies. Nature 597, 485–488 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03806-7
Nature Astronomy (2021)