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Plant acquisition of organic nitrogen in boreal forests

Authors

  • Torgny Näsholm,

    1. Umeå Plant Science Center, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU, SE-901 83 Umeå, Sweden
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  • Jörgen Persson

    1. Umeå Plant Science Center, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU, SE-901 83 Umeå, Sweden
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Corresponding author, e-mail: torgny.nasholm@genfys.slu.se

Abstract

Research on plant nitrogen (N) uptake and metabolism has more or less exclusively concerned inorganic N, particularly nitrate. Nevertheless, recent as well as older studies indicate that plants may have access to organic N sources. Laboratory studies have shown that ectomycorrhizal and ericoid mycorrhizal plants can degrade polymeric N and absorb the resulting products. Recent studies have also shown that some non-mycorrhizal plants are able to absorb amino acids. Moreover, amino acid transporters have been shown to be present in both plant roots and in mycorrhizal hyphae. Although both mycorrhizal and non-mycorrhizal plants appear to have a capacity for absorbing a range of organic N compounds, is this capacity realized in the field? Several lines of evidence show that plants are outcompeted by microorganisms for organic N sources. Such studies, however, have not addressed the issue of spatial and temporal separation between plants and microorganisms. Moreover, competition studies have not been able to separate uptake by symbiotic and non-symbiotic microorganisms. Qualitative assessment of organic N uptake by plants has been performed with dual-labelled glycine in several studies. These studies arrive at different conclusions: some indicate that plants do not absorb this organic N source when competing with other organisms in soil, while others conclude that significant fractions of amino acid N are absorbed as intact amino acid. These variable results may reflect species differences in the ability to absorb glycine as well as differences in experimental conditions and analytical techniques. Although theoretical calculations indicate that organic N might add significant amounts of N to plant N uptake, direct quantitative assessment of the fraction of plant N derived from uptake by organic N sources is a challenge for future research.

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