Ecosystem scale trade-off in nitrogen acquisition pathways

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The nitrogen (N) cycle in terrestrial ecosystems is strongly influenced by resorption before litter fall and by mineralization after litter fall. Although both resorption and mineralization make N available to plants and are influenced by climate, their linkage in a changing environment remains largely unknown. Here, our synthesis study shows that, at the global scale, increasing N-resorption efficiency negatively affects the N-mineralization rate. As temperature and precipitation increase, the increasing rates of N cycling closely correspond to a shift from the more conservative resorption pathway to the mineralization pathway. Furthermore, ecosystems with faster N-cycle rates support plant species that have higher foliar N:P ratios and microbial communities with lower fungi:bacteria ratios. Our study shows an ecosystem scale trade-off in N-acquisition pathways. We propose that incorporating the dynamic interaction between N resorption and N mineralization into Earth system models will improve the simulation of nutrient constraints on ecosystem productivity.

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Fig. 1: Impact of climatic factors and NRE on litter Nmin.
Fig. 2: Correlation between litter Nmin and foliar nutrient traits.
Fig. 3: Distribution of soil F:B ratio and its relationship to NRE and Nmin.
Fig. 4: Schematic showing how the N cycle links aboveground N resorption and belowground N mineralization during litter decomposition in various ecosystems.

Data availability

The data supporting the findings of this study can be obtained in Supplementary Dataset 1 and Dataset 2.


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We thank B. Schmid for his advice on statistical analyses. This study was financially supported by the Chinese National Key Development Program for Basic Research (2017YFC0503902, 2014CB954003) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31522011, 31670478, and 31700420). L.J. was supported by US National Science Foundation, grant no. DEB-1342754.

Author information

L.L. and M.D. designed the experiment. M.D. and L.L. collected and analysed the data. M.D., L.L. and L.J. wrote the manuscript. W.L., X.W., S.L., S.Y. and B.W. commented on the details of the manuscript drafts.

Correspondence to Lingli Liu.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1–7, Supplementary Tables 1–11

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Dataset 1

N resorption efficiency and N mineralization rate data during litter decomposition

Supplementary Dataset 1

Soil bacteria to fungi ratio data

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