By demonstrating that not all plants specialize in one specific source of nitrogen, the result turns a commonly held theory on its head. It also provides a dose of optimism that tropical forests will be able to withstand environmental shifts in nutritional cycles brought on by global climate change.
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient that plants must absorb from the soil to survive. Most land plants outside the tropics appear to have evolved to rely on just one of three common sources of nitrogen: nitrate (NO3-), ammonium (NH4+), or dissolved organic nitrogen (DON). As a result of this limitation, they usually inhabit "niches" defined largely by the available nitrogen source. When that source crashes for any reason—often because of shifts in climate—the plants cannot adapt, with potentially disastrous consequences for natural ecosystems.
However, tropical species appear to be far more adaptable than their temperate kin when it comes to their nitrogen needs. A team of researchers* has found that, when confronted with shifts in nitrogen availability, these plants simply "flip a switch" and use whatever is handy.
"When it comes to nitrogen, the tropical plants we studied behave like kids at a pizza party—they may prefer pepperoni, but if only plain cheese is available, they'll still have a slice," said lead author and postdoctoral researcher Benjamin Houlton of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. "This result gives a glimmer of hope that tropical ecosystems may have the capacity to adjust to certain aspects of climate change."
Working in six well-known sites with variable rainfall on Hawaii's Maui Island, the researchers measured the soil content of nitrate, ammonia, and dissolved organic nitrogen. They also determined each source's relative contribution to the growth of a variety of plant species, from small floor-dwelling shrubs, to tree ferns, to tall canopy trees.
In dry areas, nitrate was most readily available, while in wetter areas, ammonium was the dominant source. The plants made use of whichever of these two sources was most common in their native soil. Dissolved organic nitrogen was plentiful, but did not make a significant contribution to plant growth at any of the sites.
To examine the plants' nutritional response to climate change, the researchers combined new measures and models of variations in the atomic masses of nitrogen compounds that occur naturally in plants and soils. By examining these different masses, known as isotopic ratios, across different rainfall climates, they discovered an abrupt shift in the nitrogen cycle and in the nutritional strategies of entire forest communities.
"It really is quite striking; once the soil gets wet and nitrate drops below a certain threshold, the tropical plants all begin using ammonium in near-perfect unison," Houlton explains. "If these diverse plant species can be flexible in their nitrogen metabolism—thought to be non-negotiable in many temperate ecosystems—then maybe they can react to other environmental stresses just as gracefully. Still, our results will need further testing in vast areas of the tropics before we will know how well they truly represent the entire ecosystem."
Global threat to primates concerns us all
19.01.2017 | Deutsches Primatenzentrum GmbH - Leibniz-Institut für Primatenforschung
Reducing household waste with less energy
18.01.2017 | FIZ Karlsruhe – Leibniz-Institut für Informationsinfrastruktur GmbH
An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...
Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...
Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.
While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...
Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales
Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...
Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.
As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...
19.01.2017 | Event News
10.01.2017 | Event News
09.01.2017 | Event News
19.01.2017 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation
19.01.2017 | Awards Funding
19.01.2017 | Studies and Analyses