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Eberly College of Arts and Sciences




The extent to which terrestrial ecosystems slow climate change by sequestering carbon hinges in part on nutrient limitation. We used a coupled carbon–climate model that accounts for the carbon cost to plants of supporting nitrogen-acquiring microbial symbionts to explore how nitrogen limitation affects global climate. To do this, we first calculated the reduction in net primary production due to the carbon cost of nitrogen acquisition. We then used a climate model to estimate the impacts of the resulting increase in atmospheric CO2 on temperature and precipitation regimes. The carbon costs of supporting symbiotic nitrogen uptake reduced net primary production by 8.1 Pg C yr−1, with the largest absolute effects occurring in tropical forest biomes and the largest relative changes occurring in boreal and alpine biomes. Globally, our model predicted relatively small changes in climate due to the carbon cost of nitrogen acquisition with temperature increasing by 0.1 ∘C and precipitation decreasing by 6 mm yr−1. However, there were strong regional impacts, with the largest impact occurring in boreal and alpine ecosystems, where such costs were estimated to increase temperature by 1.0 ∘C and precipitation by 9 mm yr−1. As such, our results suggest that carbon expenditures to support nitrogen-acquiring microbial symbionts have critical consequences for Earth's climate, and that carbon–climate models that omit these processes will overpredict the land carbon sink and underpredict climate change.

Source Citation

Shi, M., Fisher, J. B., Phillips, R. P., & Brzostek, E. R. (2019). Neglecting plant–microbe symbioses leads to underestimation of modeled climate impacts. Biogeosciences, 16(2), 457–465.


© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.



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