Nitrogen storage and remobilization by trees: ecophysiological relevance in a changing world

Peter Millard, Gwen-Aelle Grelet

Research output: Contribution to journalLiterature reviewpeer-review

383 Citations (Scopus)
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The role of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) storage by trees will be discussed in terms of uncoupling their growth from resource acquisition. There are profound differences between the physiology of C and N storage. C storage acts as a short-term, temporary buffer when photosynthesis cannot meet current sink demand and remobilization is sink driven. However, the majority of C allocated to non-structural carbohydrates such as starch is not reused so is in fact sequestered, not stored. In contrast, N storage is seasonally programmed, closely linked to tree phenology and operates at temporal scales of months to years, with remobilization being source driven. We examine the ecological significance of N storage and remobilization in terms of regulating plant N use efficiency, allowing trees to uncouple seasonal growth from N uptake by roots and allowing recovery from disturbances such as browsing damage. We also briefly consider the importance of N storage and remobilization in regulating how trees will likely respond to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Most studies of N storage and remobilization have been restricted to small trees growing in a controlled environment where N-15 can be used easily as a tracer for mineral N. We highlight the need to describe and quantify these processes for adult trees in situ where most root N uptake occurs via ectomycorrhizal partners, an approach that now appears feasible for deciduous trees through quantification of the flux of remobilized N in their xylem. This opens new possibilities for studying interactions between N and C allocation in trees and associated mycorrhizal partners, which are likely to be crucial in regulating the response of trees to many aspects of global environmental change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1083-1095
Number of pages13
JournalTree Physiology
Issue number9
Early online date15 Jun 2010
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2010


  • carbon
  • internal cycling of nitrogen
  • mycorrhizal fungi
  • nitrogen uptake
  • non-structural carbohydrates
  • phenology
  • RuBisCo
  • sequestration


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