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Element cycles, Chemical origin of life

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The element phosphorus (P) is central to ecosystem growth and is proposed to be a limiting nutrient for life. The Archean ocean may have been strongly phosphorus-limited due to the selective binding of phosphate to iron oxyhydroxide. Here we report a new route to solubilizing phosphorus in the ancient oceans: reduction of phosphate to phosphite by iron(II) at low (°C) diagenetic temperatures. Reduction of phosphate to phosphite was likely widespread in the Archean, as the reaction occurs rapidly and is demonstrated from thermochemical modeling, experimental analogs, and detection of phosphite in early Archean rocks. We further demonstrate that the higher solubility of phosphite compared to phosphate results in the liberation of phosphorus from ferruginous sediments. This phosphite is relatively stable after its formation, allowing its accumulation in the early oceans. As such, phosphorus, not as phosphate but as phosphite, could have been a major nutrient in early pre-oxygenated oceans.

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Nature Communications, v. 9, article 1346.