Evolution has set biochemical constraints on the chemical composition of living organisms. These constraints seem to lead to increases in N : C and P : C ratios with increasing relative growth rate for all types of organisms. The N : P ratio also seems to decrease with relative growth rate for heterotrophs whereas autotrophs may show a more complex behaviour. Here I will show that, from biochemical considerations, N : C should increase linearly and P : C quadratically with relative growth rate in autotrophs with the consequence that N : P increases at low relative growth rates, passes a maximum and then decreases at high relative growth rates. These predictions are verified against observations for a freshwater alga (Selenastrum minutum) and a tree seedling (Betula pendula). Changes in temperature, light or other factors that affect the growth rate of autotrophs interact with nutrient supply in such a way that there are no simple rules for as to how N : P will change.
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