Get access

Does Liebig's law of the minimum scale up from species to communities?


  • Michael Danger,

  • Tanguy Daufresne,

  • Françoise Lucas,

  • Serge Pissard,

  • Gérard Lacroix

M. Danger ( and G. Lacroix, Laboratoire Bioemco, Biogéochimie et Ecologie des Milieux Continentaux, UMR 7618 (Univ. Paris 6, CNRS, INRA, ENS), Ecole Normale Supérieure, 46 Rue d'Ulm, FR–75230 Paris cedex 05, France. Present address for MD: Laboratoire Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution, UMR 8079, Univ. Paris Sud XI, Bât. 362, FR–91405 Orsay, France. – T. Daufresne, Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, Laboratoire CEFS (wildlife ecology and behaviour), Chemin de Borde Rouge, FR-31326 Castanet Tolosan, France. – F. Lucas, Cereve, UMR MA 102, (Univ. Paris-Est, Agro-ParisTech Engref), Univ. Paris Est- Val de Marne, 61 Avenue du Général de Gaulle, FR–94010 Créteil, France. – S. Pissard, Univ. Paris Est-Val de Marne and Laboratoire de Biochimie Génétique, AP-HP, Hôpital Henri Mondor, 51 Av. du Mal de Lattre de Tassigny, FR–94010 Creteil, France.


Liebig's law of the minimum, which states that only one element limits the growth of organisms at any given time, is widely used in ecology. This principle is routinely applied to organisms, populations and communities, but can it really be applied indistinguishably across these different scales? Here we show, by prediction of a resource ratio conceptual model and with an experimental test carried out in microcosms with bacteria that, unlike single species, communities are likely to adjust their stoichiometry to that of their resources. This adjustment results from competitive exclusion and coexistence mechanisms, and is sensitive to the overall diversity of species in the community. It guaranties co-limitation, i.e. simultaneous limitation by multiple resources, at the community scale and optimal use of resources and maximization of community biomass for wide ranges of resource ratios. These results question the applicability of the Liebig's law of the minimum at the community level, and the relevance of ecosystem models relying on this principle.