MORE than half of all tropical soils are highly weathered, leached and impoverished, requiring the ecosystem to develop nutrient-conserving mechanisms1,2. Nutrient retention and withdrawal mechanisms are most effective in nutrient-poor systems3,4. Thus, although dry tropical forests and savanna have the potential capacity to grow at high rates5,6, this capacity is strictly limited by climate and nutrients. Our studies on these nutrient-poor ecosystems show that a reciprocal relationship exists between microbial biomass and plant growth rate. This suggests that microbial immobilization may be a main source of nutrients for the plants and may lead to nutrient conservation.