Research

Opening image: blender rendering of an asteroid immediately post-impact. Credit: Jonny Itcovitz, PhD candidate at University of Cambridge.

My PhD aims to derive a better understanding of the biogeochemical pathways followed by the element phosphorus in deep time. Phosphorus is widely considered to be a limiting nutrient for life on geological timescales, such that records of the phosphorus cycle in deep time should equate to an understanding the evolution of biogeochemistry itself!

My main research themes include the following:

The phosphorus pulse of life on Earth:

  • How have the crustal minerals hosting P changed in diversity and relative and total abundance over deep time? We published a peer-reviewed article on this topic in Earth Science Reviews.
  • How has the global cycling of life’s ultimate limiting nutrient varied over Earth history?
  • How quickly did Earth’s continental crustal reach its present mass and composition? We published a peer-reviewed article on this topic in Geology.

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Pre-biogeochemistry:

  • How was phosphorus liberated, activated and concentrated on the early Earth?
  • How did geochemistry and prebiotic chemistry interfere with one another, ultimately shaping the early surface environment of Earth and the processes that led to the emergence of life? A preprint on this topic is available at chemrxiv.
  • How did prebiotic chemistry overcome the concentration problem in otherwise dilute geochemical environments? We published a peer-reviewed article on this topic in Life.

hadean zircon image 2

Image: Jack Hills zircon (> 4 billion years old – the timeframe in which life first appeared) with inset imagery of possible conditions on the early Earth. Minerals act as windows in the ancient past of our world.

Early Solar System history and meteorites:

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  • What can phosphate minerals in some of the Solar System’s oldest materials tell us about their formation (thermal and aqueous processing) and deformation (shock-histories)? We published a peer-reviewed article on this topic in Meteoritics and Planetary Science.
  • Can we use phosphate mineral textures to more robustly interpret collision-reset U-Pb ages, and hence access a clearer picture of Solar System dynamical evolution. 
  • We published a peer-reviewed article on this topic in Communications Earth and Environment.

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Image: olivine-bearing chondrule in a meteorite, cross-polarised light.

Closing image: the old Alchemy symbol for phosphorus. Phosphorus means ‘Light Bringer’ and was the old name for the planet Venus. As such, phosphorus has long captured the imaginations of some – driving them to study this element even long before we came to understand its vital importance in biogeochemistry.

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