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Niche differentiation and plasticity in soil phosphorus acquisition among co-occurring plants


How species coexist despite competing for the same resources that are in limited supply is central to our understanding of the controls on biodiversity1,2. Resource partitioning may facilitate coexistence, as co-occurring species use different sources of the same limiting resource3,4. In plant communities, however, direct evidence for partitioning of the commonly limiting nutrient, phosphorus (P), has remained scarce due to the challenges of quantifying P acquisition from its different chemical forms present in soil5. To address this, we used 33P to directly trace P uptake from DNA, orthophosphate and calcium phosphate into monocultures and mixed communities of plants growing in grassland soil. We show that co-occurring plants acquire P from these important organic and mineral sources in different proportions, and that differences in P source use are consistent with the species’ root adaptations for P acquisition. Furthermore, the net benefit arising from niche plasticity (the gain in P uptake for a species in a mixed community compared to monoculture) correlates with species abundance in the wild, suggesting that niche plasticity for P is a driver of community structure. This evidence for P resource partitioning and niche plasticity may explain the high levels of biodiversity frequently found in P-limited ecosystems worldwide6,7.

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Fig. 1: Relative use of different P sources.
Fig. 2: Niche shifts in P source use between monocultures and mixed communities.
Fig. 3: Relationship between species abundance and the benefit of niche plasticity for P uptake.

Data availability

The 33P uptake and plant abundance data that support the findings of this study are available at the NERC’s Environmental Information Data Centre with the identifier


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This research was supported by the NERC, UK (grant no. NE/H01179X/1, awarded to G.K.P., D.D.C. and J.R.L.). We thank I. Johnson for technical assistance.

Author information




G.K.P., D.D.C. and J.R.L. designed the study. D.A.J. and S.P.M. undertook the experimental work with the assistance of G.K.P., J.R.L. and D.D.C. G.K.P. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript with assistance from D.D.C., J.R.L., D.A.J. and S.P.M.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gareth K. Phoenix.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Plants thanks Tobias Ceulemans and the other, anonymous, reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Total biomass (dry weight) of each species per pot in monocultures and mixed communities receiving P sources.

ac. P sources supplied were (a) orthophosphate, (b) calcium phosphate, and (c) DNA. Large symbols are mean biomass, error bars are standard error (n=7). Different P sources do not influence biomass production since sources were added in the last 6 days of 30 weeks of growth. Dotted line represents 1:7 line; assuming that biomass produced in a mixed community of 7 species will be 1/7th the biomass in monoculture. Species that produce more biomass in mixed communities than expected from their monoculture biomass are above this line.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 2 Uptake from 33P sources over 6 days following injection into soil.

ac. Uptake from 33P labelled orthophosphate (a), calcium phosphate (b), and DNA (c) determined from daily monitoring of grassland community swards using a Geiger counter. Main (large) data points are means, error bars are one standard error of the mean (n=7 independent plant community pot, except for (a) where n=6 for the mixed community data due to an over-application of 33P error for one pot). For clarity, individual data points are offset from means and error bars.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 3 Uptake of 33P per unit biomass from high and low specific activity calcium phosphate.

a,b. 33P shoot concentrations of species grown in (a) monocultures and (b) mixed communities. Main (large) data points are means, error bars are one standard error of the mean. Dashed line represents 1:1 line of equal uptake between low and high specific activity calcium phosphate sources. * indicates significant difference (t-test, 2 tailed, log10+1 transformed data, false error rate adjusted, n=5 biomass samples) in uptake by that species between high and low specific activity sources in (a) only for P. lanceolata (t8=-7.74, P<0.001) and R. acetosa (t8=6.15, P<0.001).

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 4 Recalculated dataset on relative use of different 33P sources of orthophosphate, calcium phosphate and DNA in (a) monocultures, and (b) in mixed communities.

Uptake from each P source is expressed as a % (its relative use or ‘preference’) calculated as the 33P per g plant tissue from that source as a % of the summed 33P per gram plant tissue from all three sources. Bars are means and error bars are one standard error of the mean (n=7 independent biomass samples for each species receiving any one P source; exceptions where n=6 or 5 are given in Fig. 1).

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 5 Recalculated relationship between species abundance in the wild and the benefit of niche plasticity for P uptake (that is change in 33P uptake from all forms for a species in monocultures and mixed communities).

Dotted line indicates linear regression (R2 = 16.5; P < 0.001). Main (large) data points are means, error bars are one standard error of the mean. % cover data taken from 30 surveyed quadrats at the limestone grassland where the soil for the experiment was sourced, hence n=30 independent survey samples for each species.

Source data

Supplementary information

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Phoenix, G.K., Johnson, D.A., Muddimer, S.P. et al. Niche differentiation and plasticity in soil phosphorus acquisition among co-occurring plants. Nat. Plants 6, 349–354 (2020).

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