Plant and Soil

, Volume 285, Issue 1–2, pp 171–185

Competition for Nutrients and Optimal Root Allocation

Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11104-006-9002-x

Cite this article as:
Craine, J.M. Plant Soil (2006) 285: 171. doi:10.1007/s11104-006-9002-x


The allocation of resources among roots and shoots represents the largest flux of resources within a plant and therefore should have been selected to maximize benefits to plants. Yet, it is unclear why some species like temperate grasses have such high root length density (RLD). Either the slow rate of diffusion of inorganic N in soils or interplant competition could explain the high RLD of temperate grasses. Using a fine-scale model of nutrient dynamics in the soil and plant growth, a cost–benefit approach was used to assess optimal allocation rates for plants that accounted for value of both carbon and nitrogen. In the absence of interplant competition, resource benefits are maximized with very little root length except in extremely dry soils for ammonium. In the presence of a competitor, optimal allocation of N to roots is much greater and increases as ability of competitors to produce root length increase. Competition for inorganic nitrogen generates a classic aspect of the tragedy of the commons, the “race for fish”, where plants must allocate more resources to acquisition of the limiting resource than is optimal for plants in the absence of competition. As such, nutrient competition needs to be directly addressed when understanding plant- and ecosystem-level resource fluxes as well as the evolution of root systems.

Key words

Allocation Co-limitation Competition Nitrogen Roots SERMUN 

Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ecology, Evolution, and BehaviorUniversity of MinnesotaSaint PaulUSA
  2. 2.Environmental StudiesDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA

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