Plant nutrition as Earth System Science: understanding the links between plant nutrient gain and soil carbon storage.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Geosciences


We do not fully understand how plants access nutrients from the soil. This makes it difficult to model carbon (C) cycling in terrestrial ecosystems - and to know how terrestrial C storage might respond to global change. This fellowship project aims to improve our understanding of plant nutrition and by doing so increase our ability to accurately predict feedbacks between climate and the terrestrial C cycle.

The ways in which plants obtain nutrients from the soil, and especially nitrogen (N), are known to be important in determining how quickly soil organic matter (SOM) decomposes and therefore how much C is stored in soils. For example, plants and their associated symbiotic root fungi (mycorrhizas) are known to "prime" SOM decomposition by producing enzymes capable of degrading more resistant organic compounds. Recent evidence also suggests that the form in which plant take up nutrients, whether as inorganic (mineral) ions or as C-containing organic molecules, has an impact on rates of SOM decomposition. The problem is that whilst we know that complex plant-mediated effects on soil C storage exist, we do not understand them well enough to include them in models of the C cycle.

Current knowledge suggests that plant nutrition may have a large impact on soil C storage in nutrient-limited environments such as the Arctic. Arctic ecosystems store large amounts of C - approx. 35-45% of total global terrestrial C is found in Arctic and permafrost soils. The future of Arctic soil C under warming conditions is highly uncertain and is a focus of NERC research (e.g. through the recent £5m Arctic Research Programme). There is a particularly pressing need to understand the interactions between plant nutrition and soil C storage in Arctic environments and this is where the fellowship activities will be concentrated.

It has long been assumed that inorganic N ions provide most of the N that plants need but there is now growing evidence that organic forms of N also play an impotant role in sustaining plant growth. In addition to implications for the global C cycle, understanding organic N nutrition therefore has potential ramifications for crop production and food security.

The relative importance of organic N to plants has been impossible to measure until now because existing techniques are limited by experimental artefacts. This fellowship proposes new isotopic methods that can quantify the importance of organic N to plants for the first time. These novel techniques include growing plants which are isotopically distinct from the soil, in order to trace the uptake of C-containing organic nutrients from the soil into plant tissues (Continuous Depleted Radiocarbon (CDER) labelling). Experiments will also be carried out at Arctic field sites, in which the isotopic signatures of plants and soils will be used to test the linkages between plant nutrient demand and SOM decomposition under different conditions. The proposed techniques will make it possible to quantitatively test the ways in which plant nutrition impacts decomposition in soils. This new information will then be used to update C cycle models to improve representation of plant nutrient uptake, and test the future impact of environmental change on soil C storage in the Arctic.

The outcome of this project will be a significant improvement in our understanding of plant nutrition and of the vulnerability of Arctic C stocks to global change.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit?

The proposed research will impact a range of non-academic beneficiaries. These include (1) stakeholders interested in Artic and global environmental change (2) the general public and school children and (3) industrial stakeholders in agriculture and crop nutrition.

How will they benefit?

Stakeholders interested in Arctic and global environmental change include government departments and their agencies; in the UK this would include the UK Met Office and the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Work from this project will also be of interest to international stakeholders and is of direct relevance to the IPCC WGI, which addresses the physical science basis of climate change. The material benefit to these stakeholders is improved modelling of C-N biogeochemical interactions, and hence a more robust evidence base for policy decisions. Researchers working on C-N interactions in the Met Office Hadley Centre's Joint UK Land Environment Simulator (JULES) modelling community will be invited to the workshop hosted in Edinburgh in Year 4 of the project, and this interdisciplinary meeting is expected to result in significant knowledge exchange between stakeholders.

The general public and school children will benefit from this research through enhanced awareness of the climate change issues in the Arctic and their relevance to the UK. The reality of Arctic change can be used to communicate the global consequences of human activity and facilitate basic science education objectives. Arctic change is a topic that brings together earth science, biology, ethics, history and adventure, and always engages the interest of young people. That interest can be harnessed to facilitate "active engagement, motivation and depth of learning" for example, as required by the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland.

The third group of potential beneficiaries are stakeholders in agricultural science and crop nutrition including industry. These groups may benefit from new understanding of plant nutrition which may lead to new technologies in the future. These potential benefits will be realised over the longer term. Depending on the outcomes of the research over the first 3 years, potential tangible benefits could include new directions for plant breeding or genetic modification, and development of alternative fertilisers.


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