The phosphorus cycle is the biogeochemical cycle that describes the movement of phosphorus through the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. Unlike many other biogeochemical cycles, the atmosphere does not play a significant role in the movement of phosphorus, because phosphorus and phosphorus-based compounds are usually solids at the typical ranges of temperature and pressure found on Earth. The production of phosphine gas occurs only in specialized, local conditions.
On the land, phosphorus (chemical symbol, P) gradually becomes less available to plants over thousands of years, because it is slowly lost in runoff. Low concentration of P in soils reduces plant growth, and slows soil microbial growth - as shown in studies of soil microbial biomass. Soil microorganisms act as both sinks and sources of available P in the biogeochemical cycle. Locally, transformations of P are chemical, biological and microbiological: the major long-term transfers in the global cycle, however, are driven by tectonic movements in geologic time.
Humans have caused major changes to the global P cycle through shipping of P minerals, and use of P fertilizer, and also the shipping of food from farms to cities, where it is lost as effluent.
Phosphorus in the environment
Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plants and animals. Phosphorus is a limiting nutrient for aquatic organisms. Phosphorus forms parts of important life-sustaining molecules that are very common in the biosphere. Phosphorus does not enter the atmosphere, remaining mostly on land and in rock and soil minerals. Eighty percent of the mined phosphorus is used to make fertilizers. Phosphates from fertilizers, sewage and detergents can cause pollution in lakes and streams. Over enrichment of phosphate in both fresh and inshore marine waters can lead to massive algae blooms which, when they die and decay, leads to eutrophication of fresh waters only. An example of this is the Canadian Experimental Lakes Area. These freshwater algal blooms should not be confused with those in saltwater environments. Recent research suggests that the predominant pollutant responsible for algal blooms in salt water estuaries and coastal marine habitats is Nitrogen.
Phosphorus normally occurs in nature as part of a phosphate ion (PO4)3−, consisting of a P atom and 4 oxygen atoms, the most abundant form is orthophosphate. On land most phosphorus is found in rocks and minerals. Phosphorus rich deposits have generally formed in the ocean or from guano, and over time, geologic processes bring ocean sediments to land. Weathering of rocks and minerals release phosphorus in a soluble form where it is taken up by plants, and it is transformed into organic compounds. The plants may then be consumed by herbivores and the phosphorus is either incorporated into their tissues or excreted. After death, the animal or plant decays, and phosphorus is returned to the soil where a large part of the phosphorus is transformed into insoluble compounds. Runoff may carry a small part of the phosphorus back to the ocean. Generally with time (thousands of years) soils become deficient in phosphorus leading to ecosystem retrogression.
The primary biological importance of phosphates is as a component of nucleotides, which serve as energy storage within cells (ATP) or when linked together, form the nucleic acids DNA and RNA.The double helix of our DNA is only possible because of the phosphate ester bridge that binds the helix. Besides making biomolecules, phosphorus is also found in bone and the enamel of mammalian teeth, whose strength is derived from calcium phosphate in the form of Hydroxylapatite. It is also found in the exoskeleton of insects, and phospholipids (found in all biological membranes). It also functions as a buffering agent in maintaining acid base homeostasis in the human body.
Process of the cycle
Phosphates move quickly through plants and animals; however, the processes that move them through the soil or ocean are very slow, making the phosphorus cycle overall one of the slowest biogeochemical cycles.
Initially, phosphate weathers from rocks and minerals, the most common mineral being apatite. Overall small losses occur in terrestrial environments by leaching and erosion, through the action of rain. In soil, phosphate is absorbed on iron oxides, aluminium hydroxides, clay surfaces, and organic matter particles, and becomes incorporated (immobilized or fixed). Plants and fungi can also be active in making P soluble.
The availability of phosphorus in an ecosystem is restricted by the rate of release of this element during weathering. The release of phosphorus from apatite dissolution is a key control on ecosystem productivity. The primary mineral with significant phosphorus content, apatite [Ca5(PO4)3OH] undergoes carbonation.
Little of this released phosphorus is taken up by biota (organic form), whereas a larger proportion reacts with other soil minerals. This leads to precipitation into unavailable forms in the later stage of weathering and soil development. Available phosphorus is found in a biogeochemical cycle in the upper soil profile, while phosphorus found at lower depths is primarily involved in geochemical reactions with secondary minerals. Plant growth depends on the rapid root uptake of phosphorus released from dead organic matter in the biochemical cycle. Phosphorus is limited in supply for plant growth. Phosphates move quickly through plants and animals; however, the processes that move them through the soil or ocean are very slow, making the phosphorus cycle overall one of the slowest biogeochemical cycles.
Low-molecular-weight (LMW) organic acids are found in soils. They originate from the activities of various microorganisms in soils or may be exuded from the roots of living plants. Several of those organic acids are capable of forming stable organo-metal complexes with various metal ions found in soil solutions. As a result, these processes may lead to the release of inorganic phosphorus associated with aluminium, iron, and calcium in soil minerals. The production and release of oxalic acid by mycorrhizal fungi explain their importance in maintaining and supplying phosphorus to plant.
The availability of organic phosphorus to support microbial, plant and animal growth depends on the rate of their degradation to generate free phosphate. There are various enzymes such as phosphatases, nucleases and phytase involved for the degradation. Some of the abiotic pathways in the environment studied are hydrolytic reactions and photolytic reactions. Enzymatic hydrolysis of organic phosphorus is an essential step in the biogeochemical phosphorus cycle, including the phosphorus nutrition of plants and microorganisms and the transfer of organic phosphorus from soil to bodies of water. Many organisms rely on the soil derived phosphorus for their phosphorus nutrition.
Nutrients are important to the growth and survival of living organisms, and hence, are essential for development and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Humans have greatly influenced the phosphorus cycle by mining phosphorus, converting it to fertilizer, and by shipping fertilizer and products around the globe. Transporting phosphorus in food from farms to cities has made a major change in the global Phosphorus cycle. However, excessive amounts of nutrients, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen, are detrimental to aquatic ecosystems. Waters are enriched in phosphorus from farms run off, and from effluent that is inadequately treated before it is discharged to waters. Natural eutrophication is a process by which lakes gradually age and become more productive and may take thousands of years to progress. Cultural or anthropogenic eutrophication, however, is water pollution caused by excessive plant nutrients, which results in excessive growth in algae population. Surface and subsurface runoff and erosion from high-phosphorus soils may be major contributing factors to fresh water eutrophication. The processes controlling soil Phosphorus release to surface runoff and to subsurface flow are a complex interaction between the type of phosphorus input, soil type and management, and transport processes depending on hydrological conditions.
Repeated application of liquid hog manure in excess to crop needs can have detrimental effects on soil phosphorus status. Also, application of biosolids may increase available phosphorus in soil.  In poorly drained soils or in areas where snowmelt can cause periodic waterlogging, dereducing conditions can be attained in 7–10 days. This causes a sharp increase in phosphorus concentration in solution and phosphorus can be leached. In addition, reduction of the soil causes a shift in phosphorus from resilient to more labile forms. This could eventually increase the potential for phosphorus loss. This is of particular concern for the environmentally sound management of such areas, where disposal of agricultural wastes has already become a problem. It is suggested that the water regime of soils that are to be used for organic wastes disposal is taken into account in the preparation of waste management regulations.
Human interference in the phosphorus cycle occurs by overuse or careless use of phosphorus fertilizers. This results in increased amounts of phosphorus as pollutants in bodies of water resulting in eutrophication. Eutrophication devastates water ecosystems.
- Turner B.L et al. (2003) Organic phosphorus in the environment. CABI publishing
- Schlesinger W.H. Biogeochemistry: An analysis of global change. (1991)
- Peltzer, D.A. et al. 2010. Understanding ecosystem retrogression. Ecological Monographs 80; 509-529.
- Voet D and Voet J.G. (2003) Biochemistry pg 607-608.
- Filippelli G.M (2002) The Global Phosphorus Cycle. Reviews in Mineralogy and geochemistry 48: 391 – 425
- Oelkers E.H (2008) Phosphate mineral reactivity: from global cycles to sustainable development Mineralogical Magazine 72: 337 - 340.
- Harrold S.A. and Tabatabai M.A (2006) Release of Inorganic Phosphorus from Soils by Low-Molecular-Weight Organic Acids. Communications in soil science and plant analysis, volume, issue 9 & 10
- Branom J.R and Sarkar D (2004) Phosphorus bioavailability in sediments of a sludge-disposal lake. Environmental Geoscience 11: 42 - 52
- Schelde K et al. (2006) Effects of Manure Application and Plowing on Transport of Colloids and Phosphorus to Tile Drains. 5: 445 - 458.
- Ajmone-Marsan. F et al. (2005) Phosphorus transformations under reduction in long-term manured soils.
- Part III of "Matter cycles": The phosphorus cycle, Lenntech Water treatment & air purification, Holding B.V. 2006
- Environmental Literacy Council - Phosphorus Cycle
- Monitoring and assessing water quality, section 5.6 Phosphorus - EPA
- Prentice Hall Biology, Kenneth R. Miller and Joseph Levine 2001
- Katie Corbin-Soil Microbiology
- Environmental Literacy Council: Phosphorus Cycle