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Vascular plant success in a warming Antarctic may be due to efficient nitrogen acquisition

Abstract

For the past 50 years there has been rapid warming in the maritime Antarctic1,2,3, with concurrent, and probably temperature-mediated, proliferation of the two native plants, Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis) and especially Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica)4,5,6,7,8,9,10. In many terrestrial ecosystems at high latitudes, nitrogen (N) supply regulates primary productivity11,12,13. Although the predominant view is that only inorganic and amino acid N are important sources of N for angiosperms, most N enters soil as protein. Maritime Antarctic soils have large stocks of proteinaceous N, which is released slowly as decomposition is limited by low temperatures. Consequently, an ability to acquire N at an early stage of availability is key to the success of photosynthetic organisms. Here we show that D. antarctica can acquire N through its roots as short peptides, produced at an early stage of protein decomposition, acquiring N over three times faster than as amino acid, nitrate or ammonium, and more than 160 times faster than the mosses with which it competes. Efficient acquisition of the N released in faster decomposition of soil organic matter as temperatures rise14 may give D. antarctica an advantage over competing mosses that has facilitated its recent proliferation in the maritime Antarctic.

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Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3: Rates of N uptake by D. antarctica, S. uncinata and soil microbes.

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Acknowledgements

We thank P. Torode for assistance with fieldwork, B. Grail, F. Guyver and D. Rowlands for analytical assistance, J. Gibbons for advice on statistical methods, D. Murphy, P. Clode and Z. Solaiman for microscopy and British Antarctic Survey staff who are too numerous to mention by name. Special thanks to J. Roberts. This work was funded by UK Natural Environment Research Council grant AFI8/08.

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D.L.J., P.W.H., J.F., K.K.N., D.W.H and R.D.B. conceived the investigation based on preliminary data collected by P.R. P.W.H. carried out the fieldwork, experiments and data analysis. H.G. carried out IRMS analysis. All authors discussed results and contributed to the preparation of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Paul W. Hill.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Hill, P., Farrar, J., Roberts, P. et al. Vascular plant success in a warming Antarctic may be due to efficient nitrogen acquisition. Nature Clim Change 1, 50–53 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1060

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