So our muscles run off of oxygen, but I heard from my brother when posing this question (he's a bio major in college) that using phosphorus instead of oxygen to power our muscles would make them far more efficient. Is this true?

Also, because calcium ions in our muscles cause them to constrict, is there any different type of element or ion that could theoretically be more efficient in doing this? or quite possibly make the muscles stronger?

  • $\begingroup$ So internal combustion engines run on oxygen, but I have read somewhere, maybe on the Internet, that using fluorine instead of oxygen to power internal combustion engines would make them far more efficient. Is this true? Also, because octane vapors in the engine cause them to rotate, is there any different type of element or vapor that could theoretically be more efficient in doing this? or quite possibly make my 1.2 liter engine stronger? (This is intended as a friendly parody. I know how internal combustion engines work.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 0:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Muscles are more efficient if the entire metabolism is more efficient. You need to optimize the nutritional supply (for example steroids do this), the enzymes themselves, the cofactors, maybe the substrates - well, this list goes on and on until I've listed every single molecule and interplay of molecules in your muscles and let's not forget cell communication, central nervous system stuff and so on. We could even talk about bone length and joints ... Just saying "phosphorus makes your muscles more efficient" is a statement without meaning. $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 9:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Define "more efficient". Stronger? Able to lift the same weight for more reps? Muscle action is a product of numerous factors, including type I and II fibers, the neurologic activation sequence, the ligament attachments, the underlying skeletal structure, stored glycogen, and the respiratory efficiency of the blood and lungs. $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 13:32

1 Answer 1


Our muscles do run off phosphorus. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is what cells use for energy in all sorts of processes, including muscle contraction. The high energy phosphate is a handy way to store energy and release it into chemical actions.

From https://www.boundless.com/biology/textbooks/boundless-biology-textbook/the-musculoskeletal-system-38/muscle-contraction-and-locomotion-218/atp-and-muscle-contraction-826-12069/

enter image description here

You see that ATP gives up a high energy phosphate bond to "cock" myosin in muscles, getting it ready to contract. On giving up the phosphate the ATP becomes ADP (diphosphate instead of triphosphate)

We need oxygen to regenerate ATP from ADP. When fuel molecules (reduced carbon, like sugar or fat or ethanol) is oxidized, the energy released is captured by regenerating ADP back to ATP. The Krebs cycle shows exactly how that happens if you are really digging the biochemistry.

As far as the prospect of using phosphate as an electron donor instead of oxygen, the problem is that there is a lot more oxygen around than phosphate. Plus oxygen is volatile which makes it easier to breathe than phosphate, which would would have to drink in solution. But what about places where there is lots of phosphate? Could you use it instead of oxygen? I found this:

from http://www.mbl.edu/microbialdiversity/files/2012/08/1995_george.pdf

There are, however, numerous reports of trace levels of a reduced form of phosphorus, phosphine (PH3), being present in certain environments. The Wil-O’ the Wisp observed at night-time over peat bogs, swamps, cemeteries, recent battle fields and stagnant waters may not in fact be due to manifestations of the supernatural, but to the spontaneous ignition of gas containing traces of phosphine which evolved during the decomposition ofanimals in damp soils (Mellor 1940). In the 1920s a debate raged about whether thebiological reduction of phosphate really occurred (Rudakov 1927, Rudakov 1929, Liebert1927) and this argument has not yet been resolved.

My pubmed said it is still not resolved. Unclear what exactly the microbes are doing with phosphate and why they generate phosphine.

The cool thing I learned is that will-o-wisps are associated with recent battlefields! Pretty creepy, but makes sense - our bodies are loaded with phosphates.


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