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Influence of mycorrhizal associations on foliar δ15N values of legume and non-legume shrubs and trees in the fynbos of South Africa: Implications for estimating N2 fixation using the 15N natural abundance method

Abstract

In this study, we examined the use of the 15N natural abundance method to quantify the percentage N derived from fixation of atmospheric N2 in honeybush (Cyclopia spp.) shrubs and trees in the fynbos, South Africa. Non-fixing shrubs and trees of similar phenology to the Cyclopia species were chosen as reference plants. These reference plants were selected to cover a range of mycorrhizal associations (ericoid mycorrhizal, arbuscular mycorrhizal and non-mycorrhizal). Isotopic analysis revealed a wide range of foliar δ15N values for the reference plants, including many very negative values. The marked differences in δ15N values were defined by the mycorrhizal status of the reference plant species, with the ericoid and arbuscular mycorrhizal plants showing lower foliar δ15N values relative to their non-mycorrhizal counterparts. In contrast, the δ15N values of the N2-fixing Cyclopia species were uniformly clustered around zero, from −0.11‰ to −1.43‰. These findings are consistent with the observation that mycorrhizal fungi discriminate against the heavier 15N isotope during transfer of N from the fungus to the host plant, leaving the latter depleted in 15N (i.e. with a more negative δ15N value). However, a major assumption of the 15N natural abundance method for estimating N2 fixation is that both legume and reference plant should have the same level of fractionation associated with N uptake. But, because mycorrhizal associations may strongly affect the level of fractionation during N uptake and transfer, the test legume should belong to the same mycorrhizal group as the chosen reference plant species. As shown in this study, if the mycorrhizal status of the legume and the reference plant differs, or cannot be assessed, then the 15N natural abundance technique cannot be used to quantitatively estimate N2 fixation.

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Correspondence to Felix D. Dakora.

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Spriggs, A.C., Stock, W.D. & Dakora, F.D. Influence of mycorrhizal associations on foliar δ15N values of legume and non-legume shrubs and trees in the fynbos of South Africa: Implications for estimating N2 fixation using the 15N natural abundance method. Plant and Soil 255, 495–502 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1026044831178

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  • ericoid and arbuscular mycorrhiza
  • fynbos
  • isotope fractionation
  • 15N natural abundance
  • N2 fixation
  • N2-fixing shrubs and trees
  • reference plants