1. Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are essential nutrients for photosynthetic carbon assimilation and most frequently limit primary productivity in terrestrial ecosystems. Efficient use of those nutrients is important for plants growing in nutrient-poor environments.
2. We investigated the pattern of photosynthetic phosphorus-use efficiency (PPUE) in comparison with photosynthetic nitrogen-use efficiency (PNUE) along gradients of P and N availability across biomes with 340 tree and shrub species. We used both total soil N and P concentration and foliar N/P ratios for indicating nutrient-availability gradients.
3. Photosynthetic phosphorus-use efficiency increased with greater leaf mass per area (LMA) toward decreasing P availability. By contrast, PNUE decreased with greater LMA towards decreasing N and P availability.
4. The increase in PPUE with decreasing P availability was caused by the net effects of a relatively greater reduction in foliar P concentration and a relatively constant photosynthetic carbon assimilation rate. The decrease in PNUE with decreasing N availability was caused by the effects of a reduction in photosynthetic carbon assimilation rate with greater LMA.
5.Synthesis. Our results suggest that higher PPUE may be an effective leaf-level adaptation to P-poor soils, especially in tropical tree species. Future research should focus on the difference between PPUE and PNUE in relation to leaf economics, physiology and strategy.