Biological stoichiometry provides a mechanistic theory linking cellular and biochemical features of co-evolving biota with constraints imposed by ecosystem energy and nutrient inputs. Thus, understanding variation in biomass carbon : nitrogen : phosphorus (C : N : P) stoichiometry is a major priority for integrative biology. Among various factors affecting organism stoichiometry, differences in C : P and N : P stoichiometry have been hypothesized to reflect organismal P-content because of altered allocation to P-rich ribosomal RNA at different growth rates (the growth rate hypothesis, GRH). We tested the GRH using data for microbes, insects, and crustaceans and we show here that growth, RNA content, and biomass P content are tightly coupled across species, during ontogeny, and under physiological P limitation. We also show, however, that this coupling is relaxed when P is not limiting for growth. The close relationship between P and RNA contents indicates that ribosomes themselves represent a biogeochemically significant repository of P in ecosystems and that allocation of P to ribosome generation is a central process in biological production in ecological systems.
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