Foliar phosphorus fractions reveal how tropical plants maintain photosynthetic rates despite low soil phosphorus availability

Qifeng Mo, Zhi'an Li, Emma J. Sayer, Hans Lambers, Yingwen Li, Bi Zou, Jianwu Tang, Mary Heskel, Yongzhen Ding, Faming Wang

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88 Citations (Scopus)


Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are essential nutrients for plant metabolism, and their availability often limits primary productivity. Whereas the effects of N availability on photosynthetic capacity are well established, we still know relatively little about the effects of P availability at a foliar level, especially in P-limited tropical forests. We examined photosynthetic capacity, leaf mass per area (LMA) and foliar P fractions in five woody plant species after 6 years of N and P fertilization in a lowland tropical forest. Foliar N:P ratios indicated P limitation of the unfertilized plants; accordingly, photosynthetic P-use efficiency (PPUE) and LMA decreased with P addition, and foliar N and P concentrations increased, whereas N addition had little effect on measured foliar traits. However, P addition enhanced photosynthetic capacity only in one species and not in other four species. We then assessed plant acclimation to low P availability by quantifying four fractions of foliar P representing different functional pools: structural P, metabolic P (including inorganic P), nucleic acid P, and residual P. We found that P addition enhanced the concentrations of metabolic, structural, and nucleic acid P fractions in all species, but the magnitude of the effect was species-specific. Our findings indicate that tropical species acclimate to low P availability by altering allocation of foliar P to meet the demand of P for photosynthesis. Importantly, species typical of lowland tropical forests in East Asia maintained their photosynthetic rate under low P availability. We conclude that P limitation of leaf photosynthetic capacity may not be as common as previously assumed due to plant acclimation mechanisms in low-P tropical forests. Species-specific strategies to allocate P to different foliar fractions represent a potentially important adaptive mechanism for plants in P-limited systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)503-513
Number of pages11
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019


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