Phosphorus, not nitrogen, limits plants and microbial primary producers following glacial retreat

John L. Darcy, Steven K. Schmidt, Joey E. Knelman, Cory C. Cleveland, Sarah C. Castle, Diana R. Nemergut

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Current models of ecosystem development hold that low nitrogen availability limits the earliest stages of primary succession, but these models were developed from studies conducted in areas with temperate or wet climates. Global warming is now causing rapid glacial retreat even in inland areas with cold, dry climates, areas where ecological succession has not been adequately studied. We combine field and microcosm studies of both plant and microbial primary producers and show that phosphorus, not nitrogen, is the nutrient most limiting to the earliest stages of primary succession along glacial chronosequences in the Central Andes and central Alaska. We also show that phosphorus addition greatly accelerates the rate of succession for plants and for microbial phototrophs, even at the most extreme deglaciating site at over 5000 meters above sea level in the Andes of arid southern Peru. These results challenge the idea that nitrogen availability and a severe climate limit the rate of plant and microbial succession in cold-arid regions and will inform conservation efforts to mitigate the effects of global change on these fragile and threatened ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbereaaq0942
JournalScience Advances
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 23 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank R. I. Meneses, K. Yager, and S. Halloy for identifying the plants that grew in the field plots that received P. This work was supported by NSF grants for studying microbial community assembly in disturbed and periglacial environments (DEB-1258160 and PLR-1443578). Publication was funded by the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries Open Access Fund. Author contributions: S.K.S., C.C.C., D.R.N., J.E.K., and J.L. D. designed the experiments. J.L.D., S.K.S., J.E.K., S.C.C., C.C.C., and D.R.N. performed the experiments and wrote the paper. J.L.D. and S.K.S. performed bioinformatics and statistical analyses. Competing interests: The authors declare that they have no competing interests. Data and materials availability: All data needed to evaluate the conclusions in the paper are present in the paper and/or the Supplementary Materials. Additional data related to this paper may be requested from the authors. DNA sequence data for this study have been deposited in the National Center for Biotechnology Information Sequence Read Archive, under BioProject ID PRJNA407491.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2018 The Authors.


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