A critical test of the two prevailing theories of plant response to nutrient availability

Gerardo Rubio, Jinming Zhu, Jonathan P. Lynch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Scopus citations


Whereas the "law of the minimum" (LM) states that plant growth is limited by a single resource at any one time, the "multiple limitation hypothesis" (MLH) proposes that optimum plant behavior results from balancing resource costs and benefits so that all resources limit plant growth simultaneously. We tested the hypothesis that neither the LM nor the MLH account for plant responses to all mineral nutrients. Fronds of the aquatic plant Lemna minor were grown in nutrient solutions with increasing levels of four nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium. Neither LM or MLH adequately predicted plant responses to all of these nutrients: 23 of the 60 responses analyzed were classified as belonging to the LM; 20 cases were classified as undefined; and 17 cases as MLH. The type of response strongly depended on the specific pair of nutrients considered. The validity of the MLH model would depend on the accompanying resource limiting plant growth and on the severity of the stress. We propose that a "nutrient-specific" analysis, considering the biology of each mineral nutrient rather than grouping plant resources as a whole, is more appropriate than general models in understanding plant responses to nutrient availability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)143-152
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican journal of botany
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Plant Science


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