Phosphorus, Phosphates, and Fireworks

Lab Note #9
Jul 22, 2016

Taken from Greek and Latin roots, "phosphorus" literally means "light-bringing," "morning star," or "torchbearer." Phosphorus is a highly reactive element with a reddish or white color that occurs naturally bound to other substances. Necessary for life, it plays important roles in glycolysis (energy generation through cellular respiration) and bone, tooth, and cell membrane maintenance. Some common things that contain phosphorus include baking powder, fertilizers, and fireworks. It can be found in many different forms, as identified by the infographic below.

Phosphorus, in its dissolved form, is differentiated into two categories: organic and inorganic phosphates. Inorganic phosphates are further broken into polyphosphate and orthophosphate (soluble reactive phosphorus).

In the context of this project, orthophosphate and polyphosphate are the most significant forms of phosphorus. Orthophosphate, sometimes called soluble reactive phosphorus, is the form of phosphorus taken up by plants, algae, and bacteria that directly contributes to their growth. Within both E. coli and M. phosphovorus, this orthophosphate is then converted to polyphosphate, a string of phosphate molecules, for storage. The polyphosphate is later used to generate energy or may be conserved when phosphorus is not abundantly available in an organism's surroundings. 

So, by engineering E. coli to remove orthophosphate from water, algae growth is limited, and the phosphorus can be recycled and reused. It's a win-win situation!

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