Phosphorus cycle

Part III of "Matter cycles": The phosphorus cycle

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plants and animals in the form of ions PO43- and HPO42-. It is a part of DNA-molecules, of molecules that store energy (ATP and ADP) and of fats of cell membranes. Phosphorus is also a building block of certain parts of the human and animal body, such as the bones and teeth.

Phosphorus can be found on earth in water, soil and sediments. Unlike the compounds of other matter cycles phosphorus cannot be found in air in the gaseous state. This is because phosphorus is usually liquid at normal temperatures and pressures. It is mainly cycling through water, soil and sediments. In the atmosphere phosphorus can mainly be found as very small dust particles.
Phosphorus moves slowly from deposits on land and in sediments, to living organisms, and than much more slowly back into the soil and water sediment. The phosphorus cycle is the slowest one of the matter cycles that are described here.
Phosphorus is most commonly found in rock formations and ocean sediments as phosphate salts. Phosphate salts that are released from rocks through weathering usually dissolve in soil water and will be absorbed by plants. Because the quantities of phosphorus in soil are generally small, it is often the limiting factor for plant growth. That is why humans often apply phosphate fertilizers on farmland. Phosphates are also limiting factors for plant-growth in marine ecosystems, because they are not very water-soluble. Animals absorb phosphates by eating plants or plant-eating animals.
Phosphorus cycles through plants and animals much faster than it does through rocks and sediments. When animals and plants die, phosphates will return to the soils or oceans again during decay. After that, phosphorus will end up in sediments or rock formations again, remaining there for millions of years. Eventually, phosphorus is released again through weathering and the cycle starts over.


A schematic representation of the phosphorus cycle:

For more information on phosphorus, move to the periodic chart or directly to the element phosphorus

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