Phosphorus mineral evolution and prebiotic chemistry: from minerals to microbes

Craig Walton*, Oliver Shorttle, Frances Jenner, Helen Williams, Joshua Golden, Shaunna Morrison, Robert Downs, Aubrey Zerkle, Robert Hazen, Matthew Pasek

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)
4 Downloads (Pure)


Phosphorus availability is considered a limiting factor in many scenarios for the origin of life. The concentration of P in environments of prebiotic interest will have been governed by the available mineral sources of P on the early Earth. A knowledge of early Earth P mineralogy and prevailing global and local environmental conditions is therefore needed to understand which scenarios for prebiotic chemistry are most plausible. Here, we review the plausible diversity of P-bearing phases at Earth's surface during the emergence of life. We consider phases that were delivered by meteorites (exogenous phases), as well as those that developed solely as a result of Earth system processes (endogenous phases). We take into account the known formation conditions of individual phases, as well as the observed temporal distributions of P-bearing minerals found at Earth's surface today. Our approach allows us to leverage what is known about changes in the Earth system in order to rule out the prebiotic relevance of many P-bearing phases. Meanwhile, we highlight a small number of phases that are of possible prebiotic relevance; specifically, exogenous schreibersite, merrillite, and apatite, and endogenous apatite, olivine, and glass. Prebiotic mineral-chemical scenarios can be formulated for each phase, with distinct requirements for the environmental and tectonic state of early Earth. We can therefore relate the plausibility of mineral-chemical scenarios to the nature of early Earth, bridging the fields of geoscience and prebiotic chemistry.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103806
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
VolumeIn press
Early online date8 Sept 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 Sept 2021


  • Prebiotic
  • Chemistry
  • Origin
  • Life
  • Early Earth
  • Geology
  • Minerals
  • Phosphorus
  • Phosphate
  • Meteorite


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