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New Phytol. 2006;169(1):27-34.

Plants actively control nitrogen cycling: uncorking the microbial bottleneck.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ 86011, USA.


Ecologists have tried to link plant species composition and ecosystem properties since the inception of the ecosystem concept in ecology. Many have observed that biological communities could feed back to, and not simply result from, soil properties. But which group of organisms, plants or microorganisms, drive those feedback systems? Recent research asserts that soil microorganisms preclude plant species feedback to soil nitrogen (N) transformations due to strong microbial control of soil N cycling. It has been well documented that litter properties influence soil N cycling. In this review, we stress that under many circumstances plant species exert a major influence over soil N cycling rates via unique N attainment strategies, thus influencing soil N availability and their own fitness. We offer two testable mechanisms by which plants impart active control on the N cycle and thereby allow for plant-litter-soil-plant feedback. Finally, we describe the characteristics of plants and ecosystems that are most likely to exhibit feedback.

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