Signatures of nutrient limitation and co-limitation: Responses of autotroph internal nutrient concentrations to nitrogen and phosphorus additions

Matthew E.S. Bracken, Helmut Hillebrand, Elizabeth T. Borer, Eric W. Seabloom, Just Cebrian, Elsa E. Cleland, James J. Elser, Daniel S. Gruner, W. Stanley Harpole, Jacqueline T. Ngai, Jennifer E. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

116 Scopus citations


Humans are modifying the availability of nutrients such as nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), and it is therefore important to understand how these nutrients, independently or in combination, influence the growth and nutrient content of primary producers. Using meta-analysis of 118 field and laboratory experiments in freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems, we tested hypotheses about co-limitation of N and P by comparing the effects of adding N alone, P alone, and both N and P together on internal N (e.g. %N, C:N) and P (e.g. %P, C:P) concentrations in autotroph communities. In particular, we tested the following predictions. First, if only one nutrient was limiting, addition of that nutrient should decrease the concentration of the other nutrient, but addition of the non-limiting nutrient would have no effect on the internal concentration of the limiting nutrient. If community co-limitation was occurring then addition of either nutrient should result in a decrease in the internal concentration of the other nutrient. Community co-limitation could also result in no change - or even an increase - in N concentrations in response to P addition if P stimulated growth of N fixers. Finally, if biochemically dependent co-limitation was occurring, addition of a limiting nutrient would not decrease, and could even increase, the concentration of the other, co-limited nutrient. We found no general evidence for the decrease in the internal concentration of one nutrient due to addition of another nutrient. The one exception to this overall pattern was marine systems, where N addition decreased internal P concentrations. In contrast, P addition increased internal N concentrations across all experiments, consistent with co-limitation. These results have important implications for understanding the roles that N and P play in controlling producer growth and internal nutrient accumulation as well as for managing the effects of nutrient enrichment in ecosystems. Synthesis On a global scale, humans have doubled nitrogen (N) inputs and quadrupled phosphorus (P) inputs relative to pre-industrial levels. N and P fertilization influences autotroph internal nutrient concentrations and ratios and thereby affects a variety of community and ecosystem processes, including decomposition and consumer population dynamics. It is therefore critical to understand the effects of nutrient additions on the growth and nutrient concentrations of primary producers. We used meta-analysis to evaluate the responses of autotroph internal N and P concentrations to additions of N, P, and N+P and make inferences about limitation and co-limitation of N and P across marine, terrestrial, and freshwater ecosystems. We found little evidence for single-nutrient limitation, highlighting the fact that multiple nutrients generally limit primary production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)113-121
Number of pages9
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2015

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© 2014 Nordic Society Oikos.


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