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Many Proteaceae are highly phosphorus (P)-sensitive and occur exclusively on old nutrient-impoverished acidic soils (calcifuge), whilst a few also occur on young calcareous soils (soil-indifferent) that are higher in available calcium (Ca) and P. Calcium increases the severity of P-toxicity symptoms, but its underlying mechanisms are unknown. We propose that Ca-enhanced P toxicity explains the calcifuge habit of most Proteaceae. Four calcifuge and four soil-indifferent Proteaceae from South-Western Australia were grown in hydroponics, at a range of P and Ca concentrations. Calcium increased the severity of P-toxicity symptoms in all species. Calcifuge Proteaceae were more sensitive to Ca-enhanced P toxicity than soil-indifferent ones. Calcifuges shared these traits: low leaf zinc concentration ([Zn]), low Zn allocation to leaves, low leaf [Zn]:[P], low root : shoot ratio, and high seed P content, compared with soil-indifferent species. This is the first demonstration of Ca-enhanced P toxicity across multiple species. Calcium-enhanced P toxicity provides an explanation for the calcifuge habit of most Proteaceae and is critical for the management of this iconic Australian family. This study represents a major advance towards an understanding of the physiological mechanisms of P toxicity and its role in the distribution of Proteaceae.
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