Plant and Soil

, Volume 289, Issue 1–2, pp 47–58 | Cite as

Progressive N limitation of plant response to elevated CO2: a microbiological perspective

Original Paper


A major uncertainty in predicting long-term ecosystem C balance is whether stimulation of net primary production will be sustained in future atmospheric CO2 scenarios. Immobilization of nutrients (N in particular) in plant biomass and soil organic matter (SOM) provides negative feedbacks to plant growth and may lead to progressive N limitation (PNL) of plant response to CO2 enrichment. Soil microbes mediate N availability to plants by controlling litter decomposition and N transformations as well as dominating biological N fixation. CO2-induced changes in C inputs, plant nutrient demand and water use efficiency often have interactive and contrasting effects on microbes and microbially mediated N processes. One critical question is whether CO2-induced N accumulation in plant biomass and SOM will result in N limitation of microbes and subsequently cause them to obtain N from alternative sources or to alter the ecosystem N balance. We reviewed the experimental results that examined elevated CO2 effects on microbial parameters, focusing on those published since 2000. These results in general show that increased C inputs dominate the CO2 impact on microbes, microbial activities and their subsequent controls over ecosystem N dynamics, potentially enhancing microbial N acquisition and ecosystem N retention. We reason that microbial mediation of N availability for plants under future CO2 scenarios will strongly depend on the initial ecosystem N status, and the nature and magnitude of external N inputs. Consequently, microbial processes that exert critical controls over long-term N availability for plants would be ecosystem-specific. The challenge remains to quantify CO2-induced changes in these processes, and to extrapolate the results from short-term studies with step-up CO2 increases to native ecosystems that are already experiencing gradual changes in the CO2 concentration.


Elevated CO2 N limitation for plants and microbes Soil organic matter N mineralization Mycorrhizae Priming effect Biological N fixation Plant–microbial competition for N Ecosystem N retention 



We thank Yiqi Luo for his constructive inputs towards the early version of the manuscript. Thanks are also extended to three anonymous reviewers whose critical and constructive comments significantly helped us revising this manuscript. The preparation of the manuscript and the experiments presented were partially supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (DEB 9627368 and 0001686), and USDA (NRI-2000-00531). XC was on a Pao Foundation fellowship and was partially supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC, No. 30228005).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shuijin Hu
    • 1
  • Cong Tu
    • 1
  • Xin Chen
    • 1
    • 2
  • Joel B. Gruver
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Plant PathologyNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyZhejiang UniversityHangzhouChina
  3. 3.Department of Soil ScienceNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA

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