Long-term fertilization determines different metabolomic profiles and responses in saplings of three rainforest tree species with different adult canopy position

Background

Tropical rainforests are frequently limited by soil nutrient availability. However, the response of the metabolic phenotypic plasticity of trees to an increase of soil nutrient availabilities is poorly understood. We expected that increases in the ability of a nutrient that limits some plant processes should be detected by corresponding changes in plant metabolome profile related to such processes.

Methodology/Principal findings

We studied the foliar metabolome of saplings of three abundant tree species in a 15 year field NPK fertilization experiment in a Panamanian rainforest. The largest differences were among species and explained 75% of overall metabolome variation. The saplings of the large canopy species, Tetragastris panamensis, had the lowest concentrations of all identified amino acids and the highest concentrations of most identified secondary compounds. The saplings of the “mid canopy” species, Alseis blackiana, had the highest concentrations of amino acids coming from the biosynthesis pathways of glycerate-3P, oxaloacetate and α-ketoglutarate, and the saplings of the low canopy species, Heisteria concinna, had the highest concentrations of amino acids coming from the pyruvate synthesis pathways.

Conclusions/Significance

The changes in metabolome provided strong evidence that different nutrients limit different species in different ways. With increasing P availability, the two canopy species shifted their metabolome towards larger investment in protection mechanisms, whereas with increasing N availability, the sub-canopy species increased its primary metabolism. The results highlighted the proportional distinct use of different nutrients by different species and the resulting different metabolome profiles in this high diversity community are consistent with the ecological niche theory.