Dinitrogen fixation by plants (in symbiosis with root bacteria) is a major source of new nitrogen for land ecosystems 1. A long-standing puzzle 2 is that trees capable of nitrogen fixation are abundant in nitrogen-rich tropical forests, but absent or restricted to early successional stages in nitrogen-poor extra-tropical forests. This biome-scale pattern presents an evolutionary paradox 3, given that the physiological cost 4 of nitrogen fixation predicts the opposite pattern: fixers should be out-competed by non-fixers in nitrogen-rich conditions, but competitively superior in nitrogen-poor soils. Here we evaluate whether this paradox can be explained by the existence of different fixation strategies in tropical versus extra-tropical trees: facultative fixers (capable of downregulating fixation 5,6 by sanctioning mutualistic bacteria 7) are common in the tropics, whereas obligate fixers (less able to downregulate fixation) dominate at higher latitudes. Using a game-theoretic approach, we assess the ecological and evolutionary conditions under which these fixation strategies emerge, and examine their dependence on climate-driven differences in the nitrogen cycle. We show that in the tropics, transient soil nitrogen deficits following disturbance and rapid tree growth favour a facultative strategy and the coexistence of fixers and non-fixers. In contrast, sustained nitrogen deficits following disturbance in extra-tropical forests favour an obligate fixation strategy, and cause fixers to be excluded in late successional stages. We conclude that biome-scale differences in the abundance of nitrogen fixers can be explained by the interaction between individual plant strategies and climatic constraints on the nitrogen cycle over evolutionary time.
|Original language||English (US)|
|State||Published - Nov 23 2015|
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Plant Science