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Competition for Nutrients and Optimal Root Allocation

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Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

Trevor Wennblom and the staff of the Dartmouth Research Computing Facility provided invaluable help with writing the code and running the simulations. JMC was supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and an NSF International Research Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Joseph M. Craine.

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Craine, J.M. Competition for Nutrients and Optimal Root Allocation. Plant Soil 285, 171–185 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-006-9002-x

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