Biological stoichiometry: A chemical bridge between ecosystem ecology and evolutionary biology

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The mission of the American Society of Naturalists is "to advance and diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences." In this article, I argue that the area of biology least integrated with knowledge of organic evolution is the field of ecosystem ecology, as evidenced by a semiquantitative literature survey of use of terms in the scientific literature. I present an overview of recent theoretical developments and empirical findings in the emerging field of biological stoichiometry (the study of the balance of energy and multiple chemical elements in living systems). These developments hold some promise as a means to conceptually integrate ecosystem ecology, with its emphasis on flows and pools of energy and chemical elements, with evolutionary biology, with its emphasis on genetic fitness and the biochemical products of the genome. For example, recent evidence indicates that organismal C:P and N:P ratios have a major impact on biologically mediated flows of energy and phosphorus; in turn, variations among taxa in these ratios are connected to evolved differences in organismal growth rate because of the connection between growth rate and the need for increased allocation to P-rich ribosomal RNA. In this way, evolutionary change in growth-related traits, by altering organismal P requirements, has direct biogeochemical implications, while ecosystem conditions can constrain evolutionary acceleration of growth rates by imposing a direct P limitation on production of the needed biochemical machinery of growth. Thus, stoichiometric theory provides a broad biological principle that can interconvert the currencies and concerns of ecosystem ecology and evolutionary biology, facilitating integration of diverse fields of study and contributing to conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S25-S35
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue numberSUPPL.
StatePublished - Dec 2006


  • Biological stoichiometry
  • Ecosystem
  • Evolution
  • Growth rate
  • Phosphorus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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