Terrestrial phosphorus limitation: mechanisms, implications, and nitrogen-phosphorus interactions

Ecol Appl. 2010 Jan;20(1):5-15. doi: 10.1890/08-0127.1.


Nutrient limitation to primary productivity and other biological processes is widespread in terrestrial ecosystems, and nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are the most common limiting elements, both individually and in combination. Mechanisms that drive P limitation, and their interactions with the N cycle, have received less attention than mechanisms causing N limitation. We identify and discuss six mechanisms that could drive P limitation in terrestrial ecosystems. The best known of these is depletion-driven limitation, in which accumulated P losses during long-term soil and ecosystem development contribute to what Walker and Syers termed a "terminal steady state" of profound P depletion and limitation. The other mechanisms are soil barriers that prevent access to P; transactional limitation, in which weathering of P-containing minerals does not keep pace with the supply of other resources; low-P parent materials; P sinks; and anthropogenic changes that increase the supply of other resources (often N) relative to P. We distinguish proximate nutrient limitation (which occurs where additions of a nutrient stimulate biological processes, especially productivity) from ultimate nutrient limitation (where additions of a nutrient can transform ecosystems). Of the mechanisms that drive P limitation, we suggest that depletion, soil barriers, and low-P parent material often cause ultimate limitation because they control the ecosystem mass balance of P. Similarly, demand-independent losses and constraints to N fixation can control the ecosystem-level mass balance of N and cause it to be an ultimate limiting nutrient.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Climate Change
  • Ecosystem*
  • Nitrogen / chemistry*
  • Nitrogen / metabolism*
  • Nitrogen Fixation
  • Phosphorus / chemistry*
  • Phosphorus / metabolism*


  • Phosphorus
  • Nitrogen