Open Access Research article

Ecological implications of single and mixed nitrogen nutrition in Arabidopsis thaliana

Gordon G McNickle12*, Michael K Deyholos1 and James F Cahill Jr1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, CW405, Edmonton, AB, T6G 2E9, Canada

2 Current address: Department of Biology, Wilfrid Laurier University, 75 University Avenue West, Waterloo, ON N2L 3C5, Canada

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BMC Ecology 2013, 13:28  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-13-28

Published: 23 July 2013

Abstract

Background

Ecologists recognize that plants capture nitrogen in many chemical forms that include amino acids. Access to multiple nitrogen types in plant communities has been argued to enhance plant performance, access to nitrogen and alter ecological interactions in ways that may promote species coexistence. However, data supporting these arguments have been limited. While it is known that plants uptake amino acids from soil, long term studies that link amino acid uptake to measures of plant performance and potential reproductive effort are not typically performed. Here, a series of experiments that link uptake of nitrate, glutamine or asparagine with lifetime reproductive effort in Arabidopsis thaliana are reported. Nitrogen was offered either singly or in mixture and at a variety of combinations. Traits related to reproductive output were measured, as was the preference for each type of nitrogen.

Results

When plants were supplied with a single nitrogen type at concentrations from 0.1-0.9 mM, the ranking of nitrogen types was nitrate > glutamine > asparagine in terms of the relative performance of plants. When plants were supplied with two types of nitrogen in mixture at ratios between 0.1:0.9-0.9:0.1 mM, again plants performed best when nitrate was present, and poorly when amino acids were mixed. Additionally, stable isotopes revealed that plants preferentially captured nitrogen types matching the hierarchy of nitrate > glutamine > asparagine. Comparing between the two experiments revealed that mixed nitrogen nutrition was a net cost to the plants.

Conclusions

Plant performance on mixed nitrogen was less than half the performance on equal amounts of any single nitrogen type. We asked: why did A. thaliana capture amino acids when doing so resulted in a net cost? We argue that available data cannot yet answer this question, but hypothesize that access to lower quality forms of nitrogen may become important when plants compete.

Keywords:
Amino acid uptake; Arabidopsis thaliana; Reproductive output; Nitrogen partitioning; Nitrogen preferences; Plant foraging