Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Research Part II: Elemental Imbalances

I discussed previously the rather important Law of the Minimum. Essentially, that law states that growth is controlled not by the total of resources available, but by the scarcest resource (limiting factor). As with most biological principles, this law was derived from agriculture. Those raising crops all over the world were in the habit of shifting huge amounts of manure from feedlots to crop fields with the hope that whatever they were adding would cause the crops to grow more. In fact, in most cases, the crops would grow quite a bit more if just a single nutrient were added. And that's why the history of industrial fertilizers is really a history of how people can add nitrogen and phosphorus to soils.

At the same time that farmers and other agricultural experts were discovering that adding a few pounds of ammonia had the same effect as adding a hundred pounds of manure, ecologists were going around and trying to figure out what the limiting factor was for a whole bunch of plants and animals living in the wild. Over time a number of trends began to emerge and embed themselves into the background of ecological thinking: Autotrophs tended to be limited by nitrogen in terrestrial systems and phosphorus in aquatic systems, large mammals tended to be limited by food energy more than nutrients, etc. And so people tended to focus on particular elements because of their 'obvious' importance to particular processes.

In fact, some quite prominent research looking at how ecosystems function was done by looking pretty much entirely at a single element. One of the most famous and fascinating researchers of the early 1900s was Ray Lindeman, who spent his entire, short career studying how just 1 element (Carbon) was cycled in a bog. And this was and is somewhat interesting, but a little bit of common sense should cut in at some point and begin to wonder: Why just carbon? Is carbon being cycled in a form that is only carbon? The answer, of course, is that materials that contain carbon (like leaves and bugs and soils) also contain lots of other elements. All those elements are being cycled at once, in far more complex and interacting dynamics than you would ever even understand existed if you considered only one element.

(Side Note: Why was Ray Lindeman so interesting? Well, he was the first person to do anything like this, his papers essentialy began the field of ecosystem ecology, and he died tragically young before he even completed a postdoc. I'm sure I'm not the only ecologist to have read other papers from his lifetime, read his papers, and wondered in a somewhat dumbstruck amazement as to whether the entire science of ecology was set back a solid 20-25 years by his premature death.)

Let's imagine the biological parts of the carbon cycle for a moment. Atmospheric CO2 is taken up by plants, which are eaten by herbivores, who are eaten by predators. Along the way some plant material falls off and turns into soil, as does the feces and bodies of the animals. Within the soil, bacteria burn all that carbon for energy, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, which goes back to the plants again. But what determines the amount of CO2 a plant takes in? If CO2 is the limiting factor, then the amount of CO2 taken in will be related to the maximum growth rate of the plant. But what if the amount of nitrogen in the soil is the limiting factor? Does the plant keep taking in more CO2 than it can use? Or does it taken in just as much CO2 as it can use with the amount of available nitrogen? Do different plants do different things?

The underlying problem here is that sometimes (probably most times) the resources available to an organism are not the ones that are optimum for its growth. To go back to the Liebig's barrel analogy from two weeks ago (here), organisms have no reason to build a long stave out of CO2, when they can only build a short one out of nitrogen. When an organism is faced with resources that do not match its elemental demands, we refer to it as an elemental imbalance. A big chunk of ecological stoichiometry is determining how elemental imbalances come to be, how organisms react to them, and how they influence the cycling of elements.

Let's explain some of the possibilities a little here. Let's go back to our hypothetical plant, and let's give it a name. Let's call it a mustard plant. Our hypothetical mustard plant is growth-limited by nitrogen in the soil, but has enough of everything else, and has a huge abundance of CO2 (because the atmosphere is essentially a limitless source of the stuff).

The first question is: Why? Why did the mustard plant evolve to need more nitrogen than was available here? There are lots of possible explanations for this, but one of the key issues is that chemical processes that make life alive are fundamentally constrained. It simply isn't possible to create a protein molecule without using some nitrogen. In many cases, the nutritional needs of an organism are determined not by evolution or biology, per se, but by the fundamental nature of the universe. These fundmental constraints make living organisms relatively homeostatic (that is, their body elemental composition doesn't change), at least compared to non-living materials.

The next question is: So what is this little mustard plant going to do about it? The answers to this depend a lot on the context of how they are asked. For instance, a continued shortage of nitrogen over evolutionary time scales might result in mustard plants evolving to minimize their nitrogen demands or possibly mustard plants will develop ways to extract more nitrogen from the soil. Alternatively, mustard plants might use that extra CO2 in other ways. For instance, many plants create secondary defensive compounds that consist of carbon compounds with little or no other nutrients. These defensive compounds may make the plant poisonious or unpalatable.

Finally, we might wonder: What is controlling the amount of carbon moving up the food change from this plant? If, for instance, nitrogen is limiting growth, then it may be directly linking to the amount of carbon being pulled out of the atmosphere. However, if the plants are producing the secondary defensive compounds with excess carbon, there may be a non-linear response. Plants begin to get starved for nitrogen and stop their basic growth process, but continue to produce new mass in the form of secondary defensive compounds, which deter herbivores from consuming, and therefore further reduce the amount of carbon moving up the food chain.

And all this is going on in the context of multiple plant and animal species competing for the same resources as well! Needless to say, this is an incredibly complicated process that will probably continue to keep ecologists occupied for, oh, say, the next ten thousand or so years.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg!

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