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Mysterious form of phosphorus explained

Finding that marine microbes churn out phosphonates may alter scientists’ understanding of global nutrient circulation

2:00pm, May 14, 2015
Sea sawdust cyanobacterium

MUG SHOT  Along with accomplices, cyanobacteria in the genus Trichodesmium, aka sea sawdust (shown), convert phosphorus into an unconventional chemical state, potentially upending scientists’ understanding of nutrient exchanges.

Facing famine, some crafty marine microbes may set up an exclusive black market for their rations of phosphorus.

By converting the essential element of life into an unconventional chemical state, certain marine microbes could create a thriving exchange for phosphorus just among themselves, researchers report in the May 15 Science. The finding helps solve a long-standing mystery of why marine microbes create the unusual form of phosphorus, called phosphonate. It may also upend scientists’ theories of how phosphorus-containing compounds circulate among organisms and ecosystems, and the impact of that cycle.

“So much hinges on our understanding of phosphorus cycling,” says chemical oceanographer Benjamin Van Mooy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. For example, some scientists use movements of phosphorus in the ocean to estimate how much

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