Unlike carbon, water, and nitrogen, phosphorus is not present in the atmosphere as a gas. Instead, most phosphorus in the ecosystem exists as compounds, such as phosphate ions (PO43-), found in soil, water, sediment and rocks. Phosphorus is often a limiting nutrient (i.e., in short supply). Consequently, phosphorus is added to most agricultural fertilizers, which can cause environmental problems related to runoff in aquatic ecosystems.
Phosphorus is present in many important biological structures, such as DNA, cell membranes, bones and teeth. It is not present in the atmosphere in a gaseous form, but is found in minerals, sediment, volcanic ash, and aerosols. As rocks and sediment weather over time, they release inorganic phosphate, which gradually reaches soil and surface water. Plants absorb and incorporate these phosphates into organic molecules. Animals obtain and incorporate phosphates by consuming plants and other animals. When plants and animals die or excrete waste, organic phosphates return to the soil and are broken down by bacteria—in a process called phosphate mineralization—into inorganic forms that can again be used by plants.
Natural runoff can transport phosphates to rivers, lakes, and the ocean, where they can be ingested by aquatic organisms. When aquatic organisms die or excrete waste, phosphorus-containing compounds may sink to the ocean floor and eventually form sedimentary layers. Over thousands of years, geological uplift can return phosphorus-containing rocks from the ocean to land.
Like nitrogen, phosphorus is often a limiting factor in plant growth in natural environments, which has led to the agricultural practice of adding phosphorus to fertilizers in order to increase crop yield. However, agricultural runoff from this practice can stimulate the rapid growth of aquatic producers, causing a variety of environmental problems.
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