Researchers find phosphate in more soluble form on Mars

Researchers find phosphate in more soluble form on Mars
Synthetic crystals of the calcium phosphate mineral whitlockite similar to those used to produce the extraterrestrial mineral merrillite. If life ever arose on Mars, merrillite may have been a major source of biologically required phosphate. Largest crystal are ~1mm. Credit: C. T. Adcock / University of Nevada Las Vegas

( —A trio of researchers at the University of Nevada has found that phosphate found in minerals on Mars, is far more soluble than it is in natural Earth minerals. In their paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers describe how they synthesized mineral types found on Mars and then tested how well they dissolved in water releasing phosphate as compared to samples from natural Earth minerals.

Most scientists agree that is a key ingredient for life. Put another way, they believe that life couldn't have evolved without it. For that reason, scientists have been studying ways in which minerals that contain phosphate could have broken down to allow the phosphate to escape. Such studies have thus far found that minerals that hold phosphate on Earth are not very soluble—they don't break down easily when soaked in . That has led to what Earth scientists call "the phosphate problem." How did life get started on Earth if there wasn't enough phosphate around when life was first beginning? Some have suggested the answer is that it didn't, instead, it started on another planet, such as Mars, and made its way here via meteorites. Prior research has already shown that Mars has much more phosphate than does Earth. In this new effort, the team in Nevada looked at minerals that exist on Mars to see if they might be more soluble in water as well.

Lacking samples from Mars to test, the researchers synthesized chlorapatite and merrillite in their lab—two common phosphate bearing minerals found on the Red Planet. They then soaked samples in several tubs, each with a different pH level for varying amounts of time. As they did so, they measured how much phosphate made its way into the water and how long it took. In analyzing their results, the researchers found that more phosphate made its way into the water with both types of minerals and they did so at a faster rate than minerals that contain phosphate found naturally on Earth. In some cases, they report that the Mars rocks released phosphate up to 45 percent faster than Earth rocks.

The findings by the team don't prove that life began on Mars and migrated to Earth—after all, scientists have yet to prove life ever existed Mars. But it does add some credence to the argument that perhaps life did start somewhere other than our home planet, which if true, might mean it's still out there waiting for us to discover it.

Explore further

We may all be Martians: New research supports theory that life started on Mars

More information: Readily available phosphate from minerals in early aqueous environments on Mars, Nature Geoscience (2013) DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1923

If the chemistry essential to life was present in water-containing environments on Mars, the processes that led to life on Earth may have also occurred on the red planet1. Phosphate is one of the chemical nutrients thought to be essential for life and is also considered critical to reactions that may have led to life on Earth2, 3. However, low prebiotic availability of phosphate may have been a complicating factor in terrestrial abiogenesis2, 4, suggesting that a similar hurdle may have confronted the development of life on Mars. Phosphate available for biological reactions can be introduced into aqueous environments through dissolution of primary phosphate minerals during water–rock interactions, but little is known about the dissolution of the dominant phosphate minerals found in martian meteorites and presumably on Mars5, 6, 7, 8. Here we present dissolution rates, phosphate release rates and solubilities of phosphate minerals found in martian rocks as determined from laboratory measurements. Our experimental findings predict phosphate release rates during water–rock interactions on Mars that are as much as 45 times higher than on Earth and phosphate concentrations of early wet martian environments more than twice those of Earth. We suggest that available phosphate may have mitigated one of the hurdles to abiogenesis on Mars.

Journal information: Nature Geoscience

© 2013

Citation: Researchers find phosphate in more soluble form on Mars (2013, September 2) retrieved 22 August 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Sep 02, 2013
There appears to be an error in the body of the story: "45 percent faster than Earth rocks." This, considering the huge possible range of dissolution rates, is not at all impressive. The abstract contains a different version of the claim: "water–rock interactions on Mars that are as much as 45 times higher than on Earth." Since this is repeated on the Nature Geoscience webpage, I posit this is the correct version.

Sep 02, 2013
A factor 2 in concentration, everything else alike and under static conditions, wouldn't likely be a do or die [sic!] factor. In alkaline hydrothermal vents the difference in dissolution rates may make an order of magnitude difference (but I doubt it), however even that doesn't seem likely to close down a local pathway.

If we take out the transpermia hypothesis out of the analysis, unlikely as it is, it remains that Mars, not surprisingly as a close terrestrial, was pretty much as early habitable as Earth. Such correlations have bearings on the overall habitability of other systems.

@barakn: Nice catch!

Sep 03, 2013
"The prebiotic synthesis of phosphorus-containing compounds—such as nucleotides and polynucleotides—would require both a geologically plausible source of the element and pathways for its incorporation into chemical systems on the primitive Earth. The mineral apatite, which is the only significant source of phosphate on Earth, has long been thought to be problematical in this respect due to its low solubility and reactivity. However, in the last decade or so, at least two pathways have been demonstrated which would circumvent these perceived problems. In addition, recent results would seem to suggest an additional, extraterrestrial source of reactive phosphorus. It appears that the 'phosphorus problem' is no longer the stumbling block which it was once thought to be."
Like the last pro life starting on mars article other ways around these problems for life on earth is not mentioned at all.

Sep 03, 2013
Like the last pro life starting on mars article other ways around these problems for life on earth is not mentioned at all.

Why should it be? When explaining a theory is it necessary to state there are other theories out there?

I don't think so, you can always look it up and see what other theories there are. Why must there always be a focus on the debate? Can't it be up to the reader to learn for themselves? Does everyone need to be spoon fed all the information about a topic in a single article?

this and the last article made it seem like alternatives don't currently exist and that only conditions on mars would be possible for life so it most likely started there.....not the case, lots of alternatives exist that address the so called flaws w/abiogenesis on earth too.
as similar as our education system and general point of view are I thought you out of anyone would want as complete info as possible, the more the better, right?

Sep 03, 2013
as a side note I will say these last few articles have made my interest in abiogenesis flare up again. I've been devouring anything about it I can read pretty much. its fascinating all the possibilities for how it all could of started, its kind of why I dislike how they try to focus on one point of view and then say it's strong evidence life may of started on mars and then came to earth.

Sep 07, 2013
I don't know much about geology, but it seems like the nanostructure of the minerals (synthesized or otherwise) could have a big impact on the solubility? So maybee what they made in the lab isn't necessarily all that comparable to what's over at Mars.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more