Vascular plant success in a warming Antarctic may be due to efficient nitrogen acquisition

Paul W. Hill*, John Farrar, Paula Roberts, Mark Farrell, Helen Grant, Kevin K. Newsham, David W. Hopkins, Richard D. Bardgett, Davey L. Jones

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

141 Citations (Scopus)


For the past 50 years there has been rapid warming in the maritime Antarctic, with concurrent, and probably temperature-mediated, proliferation of the two native plants, Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis) and especially Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica). In many terrestrial ecosystems at high latitudes, nitrogen (N) supply regulates primary productivity. Although the predominant view is that only inorganic and amino acid N are important sources of N for angiosperms, most N enters soil as protein. Maritime Antarctic soils have large stocks of proteinaceous N, which is released slowly as decomposition is limited by low temperatures. Consequently, an ability to acquire N at an early stage of availability is key to the success of photosynthetic organisms. Here we show that D. antarctica can acquire N through its roots as short peptides, produced at an early stage of protein decomposition, acquiring N over three times faster than as amino acid, nitrate or ammonium, and more than 160 times faster than the mosses with which it competes. Efficient acquisition of the N released in faster decomposition of soil organic matter as temperatures rise may give D. antarctica an advantage over competing mosses that has facilitated its recent proliferation in the maritime Antarctic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-53
Number of pages4
JournalNature Climate Change
Issue number1
Publication statusPrint publication - Apr 2011
Externally publishedYes


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