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Towards an integration of ecological stoichiometry and the metabolic theory of ecology to better understand nutrient cycling


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Ecologists have long recognized that species are sustained by the flux, storage and turnover of two biological currencies: energy, which fuels biological metabolism and materials (i.e. chemical elements), which are used to construct biomass. Ecological theories often describe the dynamics of populations, communities and ecosystems in terms of either energy (e.g. population-dynamics theory) or materials (e.g. resource-competition theory). These two classes of theory have been formulated using different assumptions, and yield distinct, but often complementary predictions for the same or similar phenomena. For example, the energy-based equation of von Bertalanffy and the nutrient-based equation of Droop both describe growth. Yet, there is relatively little theoretical understanding of how these two distinct classes of theory, and the currencies they use, are interrelated. Here, we begin to address this issue by integrating models and concepts from two rapidly developing theories, the metabolic theory of ecology and ecological stoichiometry theory. We show how combining these theories, using recently published theory and data along with new theoretical formulations, leads to novel predictions on the flux, storage and turnover of energy and materials that apply to animals, plants and unicells. The theory and results presented here highlight the potential for developing a more general ecological theory that explicitly relates the energetics and stoichiometry of individuals, communities and ecosystems to subcellular structures and processes. We conclude by discussing the basic and applied implications of such a theory, and the prospects and challenges for further development.

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