Plant Responses to Elevated CO2


Carbon dioxide (CO2) has two unique properties: physically it absorbs in the infra‐red (heat) portion of the spectrum, and plays a role in maintaining global surface temperatures; secondly, it is the source of carbon for plant photosynthesis and growth. Recent, rapid anthropogenic increases in CO2 have been well‐characterised with respect to climatic change; less recognised is that increase in CO2 will also impact how plants supply food, energy and carbon to all living things. At present, numerous experiments have documented the response of single leaves or whole plants to elevated CO2; however, it is difficult to scale up or integrate these observations to plant biology in toto. To that end, a greater emphasis on multiple factor experiments for managed and unmanaged systems, in combination with simulative vegetative modelling, could increase our predictive capabilities regarding the impact of elevated CO2 on plant communities (e.g. agriculture, forestry) of human interest.

Key Concepts

  • Direct effects of rising CO2 on plant biology are an underappreciated aspect of anthropogenic climate change.

  • Differential responses to elevated CO2 are observed at spatial and temporal levels.

  • Differentiation will affect competition, diversity and plant community demographics.

  • The basis for this differentiation is unclear, but fundamental changes in ecosystem dynamics and evolution are expected.

  • Need to move beyond a reductionist approach and integrate ecosystem responses to elevated CO2, in conjunction with appropriate modelling techniques for better forecasting of elevated CO2 impacts on plant systems (e.g. agricultural responses).

Keywords: carbon dioxide; photosynthesis; growth; ecosystems; evolution; ecology

Figure 1.

Overview of different temporal and spatial scales of studies to understand plant biological processes in response to rising CO2 levels. The combination of molecular, biochemical, genetic, and physiological studies determines whole plant performance, and genotypic and phenotypic variations of plant performance with environmental interactions at the population level establishes ecosystem. Studies can be viewed as using two different approaches; a ‘top‐down’ approach (a) is having a global view of plant responses to elevated CO2 at the ecological level, to provide insight into mechanisms occurring at the micro‐scale; and a ‘bottom‐up’ approach (b) characterisation of CO2 effects at smaller scales (e.g. single leaf) followed by simulating this effect for the whole plant and/or plant system at different abiotic environments (see also Ziska and Bunce, ). With permission from US Government.

Figure 2.

Theoretical responses of C3 and C4 photosynthesis to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (a); and identification of biochemical limitations associated with feedback inhibition in the photosynthetic response of C3 species to rising CO2 (b). Adapted from Sage and Coleman, . With permission from US Government.

Figure 3.

Simplified construct of plant and plant community responses to elevated CO2.



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Further Reading

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Koch GW and Mooney HA (eds) (1996) Carbon Dioxide and Terrestrial Ecosystems. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 357 pages.

Luo Y and Mooney HA (eds) (1999) Carbon Dioxide and Enviornmental Stress. Sand Diego, CA: Academic Press, 418 pages.

Taub D (2010) Effects of rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide on plants. Nature Education Knowledge 1(8): 21.

Ziska LH and Dukes JS (2010) Weed Biology and Climate Change. Ames, Iowa: Wiley‐Blackwell, 248 pages.

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Barnaby, Jinyoung Y, and Ziska, Lewis H(Jul 2012) Plant Responses to Elevated CO2. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023718]