Phosphorus: a rate limiting nutrient in surface waters

Poult Sci. 1999 May;78(5):674-82. doi: 10.1093/ps/78.5.674.


Phosphorus is an essential element for all life forms. It is a mineral nutrient. Orthophosphate is the only form of P that autotrophs can assimilate. Extracellular enzymes hydrolyze organic forms of P to phosphate. Eutrophication is the over-enrichment of surface waters with mineral nutrients. The results are excessive production of autotrophs, especially algae and cyanobacteria. This high productivity leads to high bacterial populations and high respiration rates, leading to hypoxia or anoxia in poorly mixed bottom waters and at night in surface waters during calm, warm conditions. Low dissolved oxygen causes the loss of aquatic animals and the release of many materials normally bound to bottom sediments, including various forms of P. This release of P reinforces the eutrophication. Excessive concentrations of P is the most common cause of eutrophication in freshwater lakes, reservoirs, streams, and in the headwaters of estuarine systems. In the ocean, N is believed to usually be the key mineral nutrient controlling primary production. Estuaries and continental shelf waters are a transition zone, in which excessive P and N create problems. It is best to measure and regulate total P inputs to whole aquatic ecosystems, but for an easy assay it is best to measure total P concentrations, including particulate P, in surface waters or N:P atomic ratios in phytoplankton.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture
  • Animals
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Eutrophication*
  • Fertilizers / adverse effects*
  • Fertilizers / analysis
  • Food Chain
  • Phosphorus / adverse effects*
  • Phosphorus / analysis
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*


  • Fertilizers
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Phosphorus