Paucity of phosphorus hints at precarious path for extraterrestrial life

April 4, 2018, Royal Astronomical Society
A 15cm wide fragment of the Seymchan iron-nickel meteorite found in Russia in 1967. The long filament of dark grey material in the centre is the phosphorus-rich mineral schreibersite. Credit: M. Pasek / University of South Florida.

Work by Cardiff University astronomers suggests there may be a cosmic lack of a chemical element essential to life. Dr. Jane Greaves and Dr. Phil Cigan will present their results at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in Liverpool.

Greaves has been searching for phosphorus in the universe, because of its link to life on Earth. If this element—with the chemical code P—is lacking in other parts of the cosmos, then it could be difficult for extra-terrestrial life to exist.

She explains: "Phosphorus is one of just six chemical elements on which Earth organisms depend, and it is crucial to the compound adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which cells use to store and transfer energy. Astronomers have just started to pay attention to the cosmic origins of phosphorus and found quite a few surprises. In particular, P is created in supernovae—the explosions of massive stars—but the amounts seen so far don't match our computer models. I wondered what the implications were for life on other planets if unpredictable amounts of P are spat out into space and later used in the construction of new planets."

The team used the UK's William Herschel Telescope, sited on La Palma in the Canary islands, to observe infrared light from phosphorus and iron in the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant around 6500 light years away in the direction of the constellation of Taurus.

Composite of infrared (shown as red), visible (green) and ultraviolet (violet) images of the Crab Nebula, with IR enhanced and visible/UV balanced to yield neutral star colors. Credit: J. Greaves

Cigan, an expert on these stellar remnants, says: "This is only the second such study of phosphorus that has been made. The first looked at the Cassiopeia A (Cas A) supernova remnant, and so we are able to compare two different stellar explosions and see if they ejected different proportions of phosphorus and iron. The first element supports life, while the second is a major part of our planet's core".

The astronomers struggled with foggy nights at the telescope, back in November 2017, and are only just starting to get scientific results from a few hours of data.

Cigan cautions "These are our preliminary results, which we extracted only in the last couple of weeks! But at least for the parts of the Crab Nebula we were able to observe so far, there seems to be much less phosphorus than in Cas A. The two explosions seem to differ from each other, perhaps because Cas A results from the explosion of a rare super-massive star. We've just asked for more telescope time to go back and check, in case we've missed some phosphorus-rich regions in the Crab Nebula."

Spectrum of one position in the Crab Nebula from the William Herschel Telescope, La Palma. Credit: IAC

The preliminary results suggest that material blown out into space could vary dramatically in chemical composition. Greaves remarks: "The route to carrying phosphorus into new-born planets looks rather precarious. We already think that only a few phosphorus-bearing minerals that came to the Earth—probably in meteorites—were reactive enough to get involved in making proto-biomolecules.

'If phosphorus is sourced from supernovae, and then travels across space in meteoritic rocks, I'm wondering if a young planet could find itself lacking in reactive phosphorus because of where it was born? That is, it started off near the wrong kind of supernova? In that case, life might really struggle to get started out of phosphorus-poor chemistry, on another world otherwise similar to our own."

The researchers now plan to continue their search, to establish whether other also lack , and whether this element, so important for complex life, is rarer than we thought.

Explore further: Chandra reveals the elementary nature of Cassiopeia A

Related Stories

The comeback kid—black phosphorus and its new potential

July 5, 2017

When it was discovered over a century ago, black phosphorus was considered relatively useless. Over the past five years, however, the engineers and chemists have become intrigued by the material for its potential as an ultra-thin ...

Recommended for you

Powerful flare detected on an M-dwarf star

April 25, 2018

An international team of astronomers reports the finding of ASASSN-18di—a powerful white-light superflare on a previously undetected, mid-type M-dwarf star. The discovery is detailed in a paper published April 12 on the ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (5) Apr 04, 2018

--Hey, where's the P?
4.5 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2018
This finding might be important, it might not. The real question is what other elements and compounds of those elements might substitute. Arsenic, a close chemical cousin of phosphorus is poisonous to most terrestrial life because it substitutes itself for phosphorus. But I am curious whither some of its many compounds would work instead of ATP. We already know that arsenic can be used as a substitute for P in DNA (not quite as stable, but almost) because of lab experiments.

Anyway, food for thought. I suspect we will discover that once we see several examples of extraterrestrial life, that life will emerge in whatever stunted form possible whenever and wherever it can. Just speculation at this point. But that certainly seems to be the case here on earth.
5 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2018
A quick search on Google shows that apparently, arsenic is not a good substitute for phosphorus, nor is arsenic stable for DNA sequencing.
3.8 / 5 (6) Apr 05, 2018
Hang on, I'll add another term in the Drake equation, which was already complete nonsense.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2018
Maybe it has to do with how the proto earth and moon smacked into each other.. redistributing metals back on the surface, rather than just in the core?
4.3 / 5 (3) Apr 05, 2018
1959 Isaac Asimov
No one should doubt the importance of Phosphorus.
I guess some folks do not actually study the history of science.
These fellows are working established knowledge and extending it beyond the solar system.
e.g. Phosphorus is necessary in greater concentrations *inside* organisms than is available in the environment in a greater proportion than other elements.
1 / 5 (5) Apr 05, 2018
There are so many variables, with astronomically high improbability they align precisely in such a way to support life. We're alone! Like the Big Bang, the clues to the answer are in the Bible. This universe is all ours. God is Great!
not rated yet Apr 05, 2018
I think it's a little premature to say that alien life will depend on phosphorous the way we do. After all, if the entire biosphere doesn't use phosphorous and instead uses something else, nothing will be at a competitive disadvantage.
3 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2018
chauffeurkp, if I understand your comments correctly? Your concept of godhood is an incompetent bungler. Resulting in a kludgedup universe. Full of unusable planets as the result of Stupid Design?

Let us consider the evidence? Your hallucination of a creator deity needing an ego boast of heavenly choirs of angel-robots singing it's praises? Winding up producing rebellious angel-robots?

Next, your creator deity got confused about coordinating the cosmos. Resulting in quantum phenomena contradicting gravity and relativistic phenomena?

Then drunkenly fumbling with producing stars and planets. With most of both winding up as unusable klunkers.

Eventually to have a single world, out of all the possibilities, that could sustain life? Creating humans fallible to a ridiculous degree? Threatening them with vicious punishments for using their intellects with free will?

Why do you even risk contaminating the purity of your soul by exposing yourself to this site?
1 / 5 (6) Apr 05, 2018
Amazing how intelligent our scientists are, right? I mean there's no chance in he!! that "life" elsewhere evolved without phosphorus, right? I mean, it's life like us or not at all......
Man: where do I sign up for those "scientist" paychecks??
1 / 5 (5) Apr 05, 2018
So..our "scientists" are the crown of humankind? They're the brainiacs, yes? That's the BEST of all the rest? Because even I, lowly "not one of them" thinks "maybe other life-forms didn't evolve with the ATP/ADP pathway needed."
Our life-form or no life-forms at all seems to be the best "scientists" can come up with being paid what.... $200,000 USD a year?
OK Mr & Ms Scientists: here's a challenge for you: suppose instead of carbon a silicon-based life-form evolved...would it need P?
Before you answer.... go borrow a brain that isn't a "scientist's" brain. Then answer.
Oh wait, I AM a "scientist" ..... weird. I must be one of those "alt-scientists" I keep reading about.
1 / 5 (4) Apr 05, 2018
rrwillsj - What you perceive as incompetent, stupid, confused, fumbling, and ridiculous is unfortunately a product of your misinterpretation. Have you been assigned the task of evaluating these things to ultimately establish their worth? Said another way, with different criteria, could these things been evaluated in a different light?

But this isn't really the answer to your question. And regrettably, the answer will be difficult for you to understand. In a nutshell, man is at the center of the universe. He screwed up. And all of creation was affected. The sin you committed yesterday screwed things up even more. There's evidence of order in the universe - and evidence of chaos. But hang on... help is on the way.
2 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2018
Is this really accurate that phosphorous is necessary? What about NADH?

Our own bodies switch to NADH during anaerobic metabolism.

Is it really such a stretch to consider entire organisms based off of NADH or something similar?
2 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2018
While arsenic does not work so well with earth's life forms, it cannot be ruled out that an alternate abiotic origin uses arsenic from the get-go by developing slightly variant chemistry. After all, it does work (feebly) in some cases in life on earth. And many people are contaminated with it. It only causes cancer when consumed at 175ppb or higher, which is a lot. Bet those people have substantial arsenic embedded in their DNA, RNA and all other phosphorylation sites.

My uncle lives in Michigan, where some areas have high levels of arsenic. He and his wife are almost 90 with no ill effects. Indeed, the whole of my maternal line grew up in that area, most dying in their late 80s and early 90s. Arsenic cannot be ruled out as an alternative to phosphorous in an alternate abiotic origin on some other world.

My doctorate in Biochemistry rarely lets me down....

2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 06, 2018
First find the alternative alien lifeforms. Then determine that those organisms exist, survive, thrive without utilizing phosphorus. Then ridicule this research based on currently known evidence.

Praxiteles_1 Check out the wikipedia article on NADH. Looks to me that some of the variations, if not all, utilize phosphorus in different functions. To date, no known biological organisms exist without using some type of phosphorus in combination with organic metabolism. You want to claim otherwise? You have to present some sort of proof for your contention.

Otherwise your opinion is just fantastical speculations. No better than the primitive anthropophagous nonsense from chauffeurkp!

drantigmo, I'm sorry no one considers your education and professional skills valuable enough to pay you the salary you feel entitled to. We all have to live with the disappointments of our lives.

1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2018
@rrwillsj, if you are referring to my post, I don't have to prove squat. Its already available.

Indeed, the proof is in your face, literally. There are billions of people, plants, and animals on this planet RIGHT NOW that use arsenic instead of phosphorous (in DNA, etc.) to some extent, are viable and can even reproduce. This is NOT speculation, dude. It is real world data. Empirical. Undeniable. Get a grip!!

There is your proof. In summary, an alternate life form could obviously evolve using a combination of the two since WE already are using a COMBINATION of the two. Evolving from strictly arsenic is a baby step away.

Perhaps you have consumed too much arsenic yourself. It does have neurotoxic properties and builds up over time. I suspect your brain may have limited cognitive function. Lecturing me on Biochemistry at least provided some comic relief.

If you care for more abuse, bring it!
2 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2018
Just to be sure no one misinterprets my posts, I am all aboard the carbon based chemistry of life. No other element provides the complex polymers and relative ease of reactions with other chemistries as does carbon. With oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen rounding out the most important elements of biochemistry on this planet, I feel certain that any other forms of life anywhere in the universe would be based on this same chemistry. My issue with variant chemistries is primarily limited to arsenic in substitution of phosphate.

Having noted that, I am also not suggesting that another chemistry using exclusively arsenic in the place of phosphorous is highly likely, only that it is possible based on its incorporation in life on earth. If I had to put money on it, I would bet that life could not evolve without phosphorous since the odds are against it. But those odds are not nil.

Happy trails. I am out of here.
3 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2018
Is this really accurate that phosphorous is necessary?

Phosphorous is necessary for life as we know it.

Of course that is where the entire argument falls down since we have no clue what other forms life can take. So making these kinds of pronouncements (also "Goldilocks zones", or the factors in the Drake equations and whatnot) seem rather pointless. They're all extrapolating from one data point (life on Earth which came from a common ancestor to boot)

...and as any statistician will tell you: If you're extrapolating from one data point you're doing bad science.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2018
I am not sure the observed heterogeneity in phosphorous means all that much. Most of Earths phosphorous is locked away in mantle rocks, it is limiting modern life productivity and it is likely it did so when life emerged. In other words, some planets will have much more freed phosphorous and make up for the planets that may be uninhabitable.

Why is phosporous and not arsenic used by cells? The majority of phosphorous is used as a convenient energy currency in metabolism storing medium amounts of energy (ATP, NADH, ...). They activate nucleotide compounds that are also storage to make RNA and DNA used as cellular handyman respectively genetic storage. Arsenic replaces phosphorous in metabolism and is highly toxic, which is why cells try to eject it into vacuoles and preferably outside. Arsenic is metabolized in order to be detoxified and expelled. Some species use arsenic beneficially in the environment outside the cell.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2018
And how much is phosphorous needed? If the solvent is water, i.e. for planets in the habitable zone, RNA is the only known versatile self replicating molecule in geological formations, by thermal cycling in hydrothermal vents, that is key. But the energy storage function evolved because it is convenient, not because it is key. Presumably life emerging in circumstances of even less freed phosphorous may evolve a different metabolic core.

Some notes on the thread:

- The situation is not of having one data point, but of using known data to make best estimates - which is all Drake equation and HZ searches are - and model choices - where one data point suffice at worst.

- The situation is not of considering just one chemistry, see e.g. the research on non-water solvents such as Titan's methane lakes. Nor of having highly paid scientists, ignorance is speaking, or that they are anything but people that has amassed useful skills, you may want to try it.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2018

- I find it ironic that religious still use scientific data to try to make a religious claim, in the same decade that saw religion fail utterly due to scientific data.

First cosmology data rejected religious magic existence, if the millenniums of absence of magic miracles did not hint at it. Energy-matter uncertainty is less than 0.1 %, including the energy difference that is work magic would do.

Then the basic cosmology produces the local universe. I like to say that it is the ghost of ["an astronomically high improbability"] chain of quantum fluctuations. When random energy fluctuations happen to no longer keep a volume at the same inflation field potential, that volume proceeds to a big bang. The universe is not even the result of a quantum fluctuation, it is even less of a deterministic process, it is "randomness to the power of infinity". That also makes our selection bias existence an 10^-120 outcome of all, determining physics laws.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2018

The capstone was that we now know for certain that humans were never fewer than 10,000 breeders, adding to the medical hint (anesthetics) that there is no magic dualism 'soul' either, there was biological continuity from 4 billions ago to modern human minds. The LHC result on the standard model of particles confirm the evolutionary rejection by 4 sigma. There is too little interaction to even simplistic binary yes/no snapshot synaptic states to make a soul/'afterlife'/'magic listening to thoughts' (prayer) a thing that could happen.

So now what? No religious magic allowed by nature - nature itself has told us so , over and over - nature says no 'gods created the universe', no 'gods created the physic laws', no 'gods can preserve you after death'. Oh, and growing up into adult humans in response to data, Europe is going secular at ~ 5 % believers in the new generation. What will the religious do? [Majority jazz hands, while a diminishing group run in ever smaller circles.]
not rated yet Apr 08, 2018
Let us consider the evidence? Your hallucination of a creator deity needing an ego boast of heavenly choirs of angel-robots singing it's praises? Winding up producing rebellious angel-robots?
Jesus what an insufferable idiot.
Said another way, with different criteria, could these things been evaluated in a different light?
Well we've evaluated the evidence from a century of digging in the middle east. Not only is there no evidence of the biblical/quranic events, but tons of evidence that tells us they never happened.

So your god is either ignorant, incompetent, or a liar. Which does not jibe with the way he describes himself in his books.

Ie THAT god doesn't exist.
not rated yet Apr 08, 2018
As for phosphorus and life...

"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... In some cases, they report that the Mars rocks released phosphate up to 45 percent faster than Earth rocks."

-At least we got mars covered.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 08, 2018
@TheGhostofOtto1923. There's plenty of archaeological evidence for the bible. Google that.
@tombjorn_b_g_larsson - Shotgun approach.
1. What data did I use?
2. Religion failed?
3. Cosmological rejection has what bearing?
4. Quantum fluctuation does not disprove Creation - what caused the fluctuation?
5. God / soul are outside of the constraints of "nature". Hard to imagine by those who worship science.

not rated yet Apr 09, 2018
plenty of archaeological evidence for the bible
"Tel Aviv University archaeologist Ze'ev Herzog wrote in the Haaretz newspaper:

"This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, YHWH, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai."

-Google that. I don't think you know what evidence is.

And if your book is based on lies then any theories based on its contents are invalid.

BTW there is no mt sinai.

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

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.