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Effects of competition on induction of crassulacean acid metabolism in a facultative CAM plant


Abiotic drivers of environmental stress have been found to induce CAM expression (nocturnal carboxylation) in facultative CAM species such as Mesembryanthemum crystallinum. The role played by biotic factors such as competition with non-CAM species in affecting CAM expression, however, remains largely understudied. This research investigated the effects of salt and water conditions on the competition between M. crystallinum and the C3 grass Bromus mollis with which it is found to coexist in California’s coastal grasslands. We also investigated the extent to which CAM expression in M. crystallinum was affected by the intensity of the competition with B. mollis. We found that M. crystallinum had a competitive advantage over B. mollis in drought and saline conditions, while B. mollis exerted strong competitive effects on M. crystallinum in access to light and soil nutrients in high water conditions. This strong competitive effect even outweighed the favorable effects of salt or water additions in increasing the biomass and productivity of M. crystallinum in mixture. Regardless of salt conditions, M. crystallinum did not switch to CAM photosynthesis in response to this strong competitive effect from B. mollis. Disturbance (i.e., grass cutting) reduced the competitive pressure by B. mollis and allowed for CAM expression in M. crystallinum when it was grown mixed with B. mollis. We suggest that moderate competition with other functional groups can enhance CAM expression in M. crystallinum, thereby affecting its plasticity and ability to cope with biological stress.

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This research was funded through a fellowship from the China Scholarship Council, a grant from the VPR Office of the University of Virginia, and a grant from the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, NSF DBI-1052875. We would like to thank Wendy Crannage, Miller, Margot Tabb, Jeff Atkins, and Hao Yan for their help in experiments. We are grateful to Scott Collins and David Carr for their guidance. We also thank Howard Epstein, Aaron Mills, and Todd M. Scanlon for providing access to some lab facilities.

Author information

KLY designed this study; KLY, WL, and YLH collected the data; KLY analyzed the data; KLY and PD wrote the manuscript.

Correspondence to Kailiang Yu.

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Communicated by Louis Stephen Santiago.

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Yu, K., D’Odorico, P., Li, W. et al. Effects of competition on induction of crassulacean acid metabolism in a facultative CAM plant. Oecologia 184, 351–361 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-017-3868-6

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  • Crassulacean acid metabolism
  • Competition
  • Drought
  • Soil salinity
  • Grass cutting
  • Mesembryanthemum crystallinum
  • Bromus mollis
  • California’s coastal grasslands