Thursday, October 22, 2009

May the Phosphorous be With You

Phosphorous burns with desire for Oxygen. To prove its love it will even burn under water. Carbon won't do that. So it is Phosphorous that makes Oxygen potential food rather than poison. Without Phosphorous Oxygen would have remained on the dark side of life. A deadly toxin that was killing off it's photosynthetic producers. We should be thankful for this intense love affair between Phosphorous and Oxygen, for without it we wouldn't exist.

Our brains require both sugar molecules and oxygen to remain conscious. Sugar is the product of photosynthesis. Oxygen is also the product of photosynthesis. Consciousness would not be possible without photosynthesis.

Imagine that. We think we are so independent, we can understand things not seen, see things that are no longer there, and predict things that haven't happened, yet we could not do any of these things without the existence of photosynthesizers.

Oxygen has great potential, electrically speaking. And molecules with phosphorous are the key to tapping its potential. Phosphorous is essential to bone formation and basic metabolism in most animals. It forms a part of ATP, otherwise known as Adenosine triphosphate and ADP, or Adenosine diphosphate. These are the molecules that are the workhorses of “ cellular respiration”

And DNA – the molecule of heredity, is non-functional without phosphorus. Maybe it's the power of love between Oxygen and Phosphorous that has really made it possible for life to endure longer than the mountains and the continents

In cellular respiration oxygen atoms are passed from one molecule to the next in a controlled stepwise process that extracts the maximum energy from an oxygen atom and makes it available to the cell for work. It is molecules of ATP and ADP that makes this possible.

Microbiologist Lynn Margulis is the scientist who first brought to our attention the idea that oxygen played a major role in shaping the direction of early evolution.

“Whereas fermentation typically produces two molecules of ATP for every sugar molecule broken down, the respiration of the same sugar molecule utilyzing oxygen can produce as many as thirty-six.”

“With greater quantities of energy available to them cyanobacteria exploded into hundreds of different forms. They spread into greater extremes of the environment, from cold marine waters to hot freshwater springs.”

“Cyanobacteria's continuing air pollution forced other organisms to acquire the ability to use oxygen too. This set off waves of speciation and the creation of elaborate forms and life cycles among them.”

“Growing, mutating and trading genes, some bacteria producing oxygen and others removing it, they maintained the oxygen balance of the entire planet.”

Oxygen has been twenty-one percent of the atmosphere for hundreds of millions of years. This is a sign of the endurance of the balance of nature. It shows that there has been a balance between photosynthesizers and respirers for at least that long.

If oxygen was much higher than 21% then all the plants on land would burn even if they were wet. But if there was much less oxygen than 21% then all animals, including humans would asphyxiate. So as animals that need to breathe and depend on plants for food we are lucky that there is just the right proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere.

How could this be? Some lovers of certainty think that there must be an intelligent designer behind it all. On the other hand, strict Darwinists, like Richard Dawkins can't explain this as anything but a coincidence. Neither considers that new properties can emerge from the ground up. In fact, living things maintain themselves. They sometimes adapt to change by changing the environment.

When too much oxygen was produced its dark side came into play. There was massive extinctions. When new forms of life evolved to take advantage of oxygen, the new form of energy, they quickly expanded in population. A new balance was created between the creatures that produce oxygen and the creatures, like us, that consume it. All this occurred over a time scale of millions of years.

There is a parallel between oxygen and oil. We humans have changed the face of the Earth much faster than any other creature. We discovered coal and oil in the ground and developed technologies like steam, diesel, and internal combustion engines to utilize the new form of energy. This occurred over a few hundred years.

Developing transportation, agricultural and extraction technologies based on machines that run on fossil fuels allowed the human population to grow rapidly because it gave us the ability to get more resources from the ground, to grow more food, and to provide more amenities for ourselves.

The greater population led to the greater utilization of fossil fuels which in turn is leading to a greater output of carbon dioxide. It is carbon dioxide that regulates global temperature and ocean acidity. Increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere along with other stresses on other life forms caused by increases in human population is leading to a new major extinction event.

Many creatures will go extinct. Carbon dioxide will stabilize at some higher level until millions of years from now new life forms evolve to fill the empty niches left behind by the mass extinctions and they draw down the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere once again.

The balance of nature is a metaphor, but it represents a real process. In maintaining itself life uses energy and creates pollution. Pollution is toxic to many organisms and many of them die off. New life forms evolve to take advantage of the pollution creating a balance.

 The global combination of all living creatures may keep the content of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in stable proportions until a new creature, in this case one that adds huge amounts of carbon dioxide, tips the entire system over.


  1. Very fascinating, however too scientific for me to follow it all. If you could use animation to illustrate the activities of the above substances, like they did in Jurassic Park, then I would follow it better.

  2. Thanks for your comment Larissa. Talking about Chemistry is not easy. But it was fun to write this piece. I try and draw a picture with metaphor, not up to doing animation.

    1. Point taken...
      BTW, is Judge Learned Hand you?


    2. I'm not the judge, but I love his quote, as an apt summary of the concept of justice.