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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

The synergistic response of primary production in grasslands to combined nitrogen and phosphorus addition is caused by increased nutrient uptake and retention

Vazquez, Eduardo; Borer, Elizabeth T.; Bugalho, Miguel N.; Caldeira, Maria C.; McCulley, Rebecca L.; Risch, Anita C.; Seabloom, Eric W.; Wheeler, George R.; Spohn, Marie


Background and aimsA synergistic response of aboveground plant biomass production to combined nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) addition has been observed in many ecosystems, but the underlying mechanisms and their relative importance are not well known. We aimed at evaluating several mechanisms that could potentially cause the synergistic growth response, such as changes in plant biomass allocation, increased N and P uptake by plants, and enhanced ecosystem nutrient retention.MethodsWe studied five grasslands located in Europe and the USA that are subjected to an element addition experiment composed of four treatments: control (no element addition), N addition, P addition, combined NP addition.ResultsCombined NP addition increased the total plant N stocks by 1.47 times compared to the N treatment, while total plant P stocks were 1.62 times higher in NP than in single P addition. Further, higher N uptake by plants in response to combined NP addition was associated with reduced N losses from the soil (evaluated based on soil delta N-15) compared to N addition alone, indicating a higher ecosystem N retention. In contrast, the synergistic growth response was not associated with significant changes in plant resource allocation.ConclusionsOur results demonstrate that the commonly observed synergistic effect of NP addition on aboveground biomass production in grasslands is caused by enhanced N uptake compared to single N addition, and increased P uptake compared to single P addition, which is associated with a higher N and P retention in the ecosystem.


Synergistic growth effect; Nitrogen addition; Phosphorus addition; Grasslands; NutNet; Nitrogen losses; N-15 natural abundance

Published in

Plant and Soil
2023, Volume: 490, number: 1, pages: 371-385
Publisher: SPRINGER