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Keywords:

  • Leaf traits;
  • nutrient limitation;
  • nutrient use efficiency;
  • photosynthesis;
  • soil nutrients;
  • tropical rain forests

Abstract

How plants develop adaptive strategies to efficiently use nutrients on infertile soils is an important topic in plant ecology. It has been suggested that, with decreasing phosphorus (P) availability, plants increase photosynthetic P-use efficiency (PPUE) (i.e., the ratio of instantaneous photosynthetic carbon assimilation rate per unit foliar P). However, the mechanism to increase PPUE remains unclear. In this study, we tested whether high PPUE is explained by an optimized allocation of P in cells among P-containing biochemical compounds (i.e., foliar P fractions). We investigated the relationships among mass-based photosynthetic carbon assimilation rate (Amass), PPUE, total foliar P concentration, and foliar P fractions in 10 tree species in two tropical montane rain forests with differing soil P availability (five species on sedimentary soils and five species on P-poorer ultrabasic serpentine soils) on Mount Kinabalu, Borneo. We chemically fractionated foliar P into the following four fractions: metabolic P, lipid P, nucleic acid P, and residual P. Amass was positively correlated with the concentrations of total foliar P and of metabolic P across 10 tree species. Mean Amass and mean concentrations of total foliar P and of each foliar P fraction were lower on the P-poorer ultrabasic serpentine soils than on the sedimentary soils. There was a negative relationship between the proportion of metabolic P per total P and the proportion of lipid P per total P. PPUE was positively correlated with the ratio of metabolic P to lipid P. High PPUE is explained by the net effect of a relatively greater investment of P into P-containing metabolites and a relatively lesser investment into phospholipids in addition to generally reduced concentrations of all P fractions. We conclude that plants optimize the allocation of P among foliar P fractions for maintaining their productivity and growth and for reducing demand for P as their adaptation to P-poor soils.