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A Mechanistic Study of Plant and Microbial Controls over R* for Nitrogen in an Annual Grassland

Yelenik, S. G., B.P. Colman, J.M. Levine and J. HilleRisLambers. 2014. PLoS ONE


Differences in species' abilities to capture resources can drive competitive hierarchies, successional dynamics, community diversity, and invasions. To investigate mechanisms of resource competition within a nitrogen (N) limited California grassland community, we established a manipulative experiment using an R* framework. R* theory holds that better competitors within a N limited community should better depress available N in monoculture plots and obtain higher abundance in mixture plots. We asked whether (1) plant uptake or (2) plant species influences on microbial dynamics were the primary drivers of available soil N levels in this system where N structures plant communities. To disentangle the relative roles of plant uptake and microbially-mediated processes in resource competition, we quantified soil N dynamics as well as N pools in plant and microbial biomass in monoculture plots of 11 native or exotic annual grassland plants over one growing season. We found a negative correlation between plant N content and soil dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN, our measure of R*), suggesting that plant uptake drives R*. In contrast, we found no relationship between microbial biomass N or potential net N mineralization and DIN. We conclude that while plant-microbial interactions may have altered the overall quantity of N that plants take up, the relationship between species' abundance and available N in monoculture was largely driven by plant N uptake in this first year of growth