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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A new theory of plant-microbe nutrient competition resolves inconsistencies between observations and model predictions.

Published Web Location Commons 'BY-NC' version 4.0 license

Terrestrial plants assimilate anthropogenic CO2 through photosynthesis and synthesizing new tissues. However, sustaining these processes requires plants to compete with microbes for soil nutrients, which therefore calls for an appropriate understanding and modeling of nutrient competition mechanisms in Earth System Models (ESMs). Here, we survey existing plant-microbe competition theories and their implementations in ESMs. We found no consensus regarding the representation of nutrient competition and that observational and theoretical support for current implementations are weak. To reconcile this situation, we applied the Equilibrium Chemistry Approximation (ECA) theory to plant-microbe nitrogen competition in a detailed grassland 15 N tracer study and found that competition theories in current ESMs fail to capture observed patterns and the ECA prediction simplifies the complex nature of nutrient competition and quantitatively matches the 15 N observations. Since plant carbon dynamics are strongly modulated by soil nutrient acquisition, we conclude that (1) predicted nutrient limitation effects on terrestrial carbon accumulation by existing ESMs may be biased and (2) our ECA-based approach may improve predictions by mechanistically representing plant-microbe nutrient competition.

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