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8.3D: Phosphorus

Inorganic phosphorus in the form of the phosphate \(PO_4^{3−}\) is required for all known forms of life. Phosphorus plays a major role in the structural framework of DNA and RNA. Living cells use phosphate to transport cellular energy with adenosine triphosphate (ATP), necessary for every cellular process that uses energy. ATP is also important for phosphorylation, a key regulatory event in cells. Phospholipids are the main structural components of all cellular membranes. Calcium phosphate salts assist in stiffening bones.

An average adult human contains about 0.7 kg of phosphorus, about 85–90% in bones and teeth in the form of apatite, and the remainder in soft tissues and extracellular fluids (~1%). The phosphorus content increases from about 0.5 weight% in infancy to 0.65–1.1 weight% in adults. Average phosphorus concentration in the blood is about 0.4 g/L, about 70% of that is organic and 30% inorganic phosphates. An adult with healthy diet consumes and excretes about 1–3 grams of phosphorus per day, with consumption in the form of inorganic phosphate and phosphorus-containing biomolecules such as nucleic acids and phospholipids; and excretion almost exclusively in the form of phosphate ions. Only about 0.1% of body phosphate circulates in the blood, paralleling the amount of phosphate available to soft tissue cells.


The main component of bone is hydroxyapatite as well as amorphous forms of calcium phosphate, possibly including carbonate. Hydroxyapatite is the main component of tooth enamel.

Phosphorus Deficiency

In medicine, phosphate deficiency syndrome may be caused by malnutrition, by failure to absorb phosphate, and by metabolic syndromes that draw phosphate from the blood (such as re-feeding after malnutrition) or pass too much of it into the urine. All are characterized by hypophosphatemia, which is a condition of low levels of soluble phosphate levels in the blood serum and inside the cells. Symptoms of hypophosphatemia include neurological dysfunction and disruption of muscle and blood cells due to lack of ATP. Too much phosphate can lead to diarrhoea and calcification (hardening) of organs and soft tissue, and can interfere with the body's ability to use iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.

Dietary Sources

The main food sources for phosphorus are the same as those containing protein, although proteins do not contain phosphorus. For example, milk, meat, and soya typically also have phosphorus. As a rule, if a diet has sufficient protein and calcium, the amount of phosphorus is probably sufficient.


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