A synergistic response of aboveground plant biomass production to combined nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) addition has been observed in many ecosystems, but the underlying mechanisms and their relative importance are not well known. We aimed at evaluating several mechanisms that could potentially cause the synergistic growth response, such as changes in plant biomass allocation, increased N and P uptake by plants, and enhanced ecosystem nutrient retention.
We studied five grasslands located in Europe and the USA that are subjected to an element addition experiment composed of four treatments: control (no element addition), N addition, P addition, combined NP addition.
Combined NP addition increased the total plant N stocks by 1.47 times compared to the N treatment, while total plant P stocks were 1.62 times higher in NP than in single P addition. Further, higher N uptake by plants in response to combined NP addition was associated with reduced N losses from the soil (evaluated based on soil δ15N) compared to N addition alone, indicating a higher ecosystem N retention. In contrast, the synergistic growth response was not associated with significant changes in plant resource allocation.
Our results demonstrate that the commonly observed synergistic effect of NP addition on aboveground biomass production in grasslands is caused by enhanced N uptake compared to single N addition, and increased P uptake compared to single P addition, which is associated with a higher N and P retention in the ecosystem.