New paradigms for understanding ecosystem nutrient limitations

The types of soils and the diversity of plants that grow on them are key to determining the productivity of plants in both natural and managed terrestrial ecosystems. The strong control of nutrient availability over plant processes regulates ecosystem structure and productivity, determines ecosystem responsiveness to global change, and governs community composition of native ecosystems, among others. Nutrient availability also regulates production and yields in agronomic ecosystems. Accordingly, an improved understanding of how nutrient cycling and availability drive ecosystems – particularly the productivity of plants – and their response to change has numerous scientific and societal benefits. The traditional concept for recognising and diagnosing single nutrient limitations was developed for agriculture in the 19 century, and this concept of a single ‘most limiting’ nutrient is still widely invoked for understanding vegetation productivity and how productivity might change as we move to the future. However, a wealth of new data point to the likelihood of multiple nutrient and nutrient co-limitations and hence to the need for an improved understanding of how plant traits may act to overcome limitation.


We aim to significantly advance current thinking and consideration of nutrient limitation as applied to native systems and agroecosystems, moving the scientific community toward consideration of alternative ways to assess nutrient limitation and its impacts on vegetation processes, as well as toward inclusion of a multiple nutrient limitation framework. There is a strong need to update existing conceptual and numerical models, as well as to stimulate new advances regarding limitations to plant communities by nutrients other than nitrogen. Our proposed effort is extremely timely, because most of the global modelling efforts and ecological analyses rely on an old paradigm of agronomic nutrient limitations in monocultures, and therefore can wrongly ascribe nutrient limitations to many regions world-wide, or incorrectly depict the outcome of these limitations.


Organising committee

  • Dr Hans Lambers (University of Western Australia and China Agriculture University)
  • Dr David Ellsworth (Hawkesbury Institute and Western Sydney Universiity, Australia)
  • Dr Cory Cleveland (University of Montana, USA)
  • Dr Sasha Reed (US Geological Survey)