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The abundance of nitrogen (N)-fixing plants in ecosystems where phosphorus (P) limits plant productivity poses a paradox because N fixation entails a high P cost. One explanation for this paradox is that the N-fixing strategy allows greater root phosphatase activity to enhance P acquisition from organic sources, but evidence to support this contention is limited. We measured root phosphomonoesterase (PME) activity of 10 N-fixing species, including rhizobial legumes and actinorhizal Allocasuarina species, and eight non-N-fixing species across a retrogressive soil chronosequence showing a clear shift from N to P limitation of plant growth and representing a strong natural gradient in P availability. Legumes showed greater root PME activity than non-legumes, with the difference between these two groups increasing markedly as soil P availability declined. By contrast, root PME activity of actinorhizal species was always lower than that of co-occurring legumes and not different from non-N-fixing plants. The difference in root PME activity between legumes and actinorhizal plants was not reflected in a greater or similar reliance on N fixation for N acquisition by actinorhizal species compared to co-occurring legumes. Synthesis. Our results support the idea that N-fixing legumes show high root phosphatase activity, especially at low soil P availability, but suggest that this is a phylogenetically conserved trait rather than one directly linked to their N-fixation capacity.
Data from: Greater root phosphatase activity in nitrogen-fixing rhizobial but not actinorhizal plants with declining phosphorus availability