Phosphate availability and implications for life on ocean worlds

Noah G. Randolph-Flagg, Tucker Ely, Sanjoy M. Som, Everett L. Shock, Christopher R. German, Tori M. Hoehler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Several moons in the outer solar system host liquid water oceans. A key next step in assessing the habitability of these ocean worlds is to determine whether life’s elemental and energy requirements are also met. Phosphorus is required by all known life and is often limited to biological productivity in Earth’s oceans. This raises the possibility that its availability may limit the abundance or productivity of Earth-like life on ocean worlds. To address this potential problem, here we calculate the equilibrium dissolved phosphate concentrations associated with the reaction of water and rocks—a key driver of ocean chemical evolution—across a broad range of compositional inputs and reaction conditions. Equilibrium dissolved phosphate concentrations range from 10−11 to 10−1mol/kg across the full range of carbonaceous chondrite compositions and reaction conditions considered, but are generally > 10−5mol/kg for most plausible scenarios. Relative to the phosphate requirements and uptake kinetics of microorganisms in Earth’s oceans, such concentrations would be sufficient to support initially rapid cell growth and construction of global ocean cell populations larger than those observed in Earth’s deep oceans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2388
JournalNature communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physics and Astronomy(all)
  • Chemistry(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Phosphate availability and implications for life on ocean worlds'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this