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Plants allocate nutrients to specific leaf cell types; eudicots are thought to predominantly allocate phosphorus (P) to epidermal/bundle sheath cells. However, three Proteaceae species have been shown to preferentially allocate P to mesophyll cells instead. These Proteaceae species are highly adapted to P-impoverished habitats, with exceptionally high photosynthetic P-use efficiencies (PPUE). We hypothesized that preferential allocation of P to photosynthetic mesophyll cells is an important trait in species adapted to extremely P-impoverished habitats, contributing to their high PPUE. We used elemental X-ray mapping to determine leaf cell-specific nutrient concentrations for 12 Proteaceae species, from habitats of strongly contrasting soil P concentrations, in Australia, Brazil, and Chile. We found that only species from extremely P-impoverished habitats preferentially allocated P to photosynthetic mesophyll cells, suggesting it has evolved as an adaptation to their extremely P-impoverished habitat and that it is not a family-wide trait. Our results highlight the possible role of soil P in driving the evolution of ecologically relevant nutrient allocation patterns and that these patterns cannot be generalized across families. Furthermore, preferential allocation of P to photosynthetic cells may provide new and exciting strategies to improve PPUE in crop species.
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