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DOES SOIL PHOSPHORUS MATTER IN A GREENHOUSE WORLD?

September 08, 2014

DOES SOIL PHOSPHORUS MATTER IN A GREENHOUSE WORLD?

Jennifer Thompson empties seedling pots onto a table in a forest-walled corner of STRI’s Gamboa facility. Although she previously set the seedlings aside to weigh, Jennifer meticulously sifts through the rusty orange soil to find the remaining tiny r

Jennifer Thompson empties seedling pots onto a table in a forest-walled corner of STRI’s Gamboa facility. Although she previously set the seedlings aside to weigh, Jennifer meticulously sifts through the rusty orange soil to find the remaining tiny roots. She needs every bit of biomass to discover how soil nutrients may influence tropical forests’ response to climate change.

Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide supplies more fuel for plants to grow, since they consume this greenhouse gas as they photosynthesize. But phosphorus, an essential nutrient generally scarce in tropical soils, may limit tree growth regardless of carbon availability.

The nine plant species Thompson tests under different CO2 scenarios may have different phosphorus requirements. Thompson will find out as she measures seedling biomass and conducts phosphatase assays to quantify the amount of this enzyme needed to break down soil phosphorus present in each species.

“This will help us figure out, based on different species’ phosphorus-use efficiencies, how species distribution might change within lowland tropical forests,” said Thompson, a University of California at Santa Cruz student who participated in STRI’s first Research Experience for Undergraduates, REU, this year. She works with STRI scientists Klaus Winter and Ben Turner, research associate Jim Dalling and post-doctoral fellow Camilo Zalamea.

“It’s important to know how tropical forests are going to respond to elevated CO2 because they are such an important factor in mitigating climate change,” said Thompson.

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