It's very likely that at this point in your life, you've heard about the chemical element phosphorus. It's arguably one of the more famous, and with good reason: It's the 11th most common element on Earth, and the second most common in the human body. And like all chemical elements, phosphorus can be found in a few different forms, just like you can turn corn into grits or tortillas or creamed corn. But arguably the most useful form of phosphorus, as far as living things are concerned, is phosphates (singular: phosphate), which, simply put, are chemical compounds containing phosphorus. Here are four things to know about phosphates:
1. Phosphates Are Everywhere
Phosphorus shows up in nature as phosphate (PO43-), and there's very little phosphates can't do, from cleaning your house to storing energy in your cells. Phosphates can be found in your toothpaste, your bones, table salt, fire extinguishers, your DNA, yoga mats, snack cakes — you name something, it probably contains some form of phosphate.
"'Phosphates' is a broad term that describes any chemical containing a group of linked oxygen and phosphorus atoms," says Erin Shanle, a biology professor at Longwood University. "Phosphates are found on many chemicals, including detergents and fertilizers, and molecules in our bodies such as DNA and proteins. Phosphates can also be found in many other personal and household products."
2. Phosphates Work Overtime in Your Body
Phosphates are found in all living things — your body could get very little done without them. Phosphates are the workhorses that build molecules like DNA, transfer energy and transport molecules in and out of cells, and activate and inactivate proteins. But we also require phosphates to build strong bones: In vertebrates, approximately 85 percent of the body's phosphorus is found in bones and teeth. If you don't get enough phosphorus in your diet, your bones can become brittle.
"We often hear that calcium is used in bones — drink your milk to get strong bones! — but phosphates are just as important as calcium," says Shanle. "In fact, most of the phosphate in your body is found in your bones and teeth."
Most of us get an abundant amount of phosphorus in our diet — meat is rich in phosphorus, as are dairy, soy, beans, eggs and nuts.
Although phosphorus is essential in the body, people with chronic kidney disease have a problem removing excess phosphorus from the body. In these cases, too much phosphorus can actually be toxic.