The effects of elevated CO2 on plants

Effects of Rising Atmospheric Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide on Plants

By: Daniel R. Taub (Biology Department, Southwestern University) © 2010 Nature Education

The effects of elevated CO2 on plants can vary depending on other environmental factors. While elevated CO2 makes carbon more available, plants also require other resources including minerals obtained from the soil. Elevated CO2 does not directly make these mineral elements more available and, as noted above, may even decrease the uptake of some elements. The ability of plants to respond to elevated CO2 with increased photosynthesis and growth may therefore be limited under conditions of low mineral availability. This effect has been best documented for nitrogen. In FACE experiments, there is less enhancement of photosynthesis by elevated CO2 under low than high soil N conditions (Ainsworth & Long 2005; Ainsworth & Rogers 2007). Crop yield in FACE also appears to be enhanced by elevated CO2 to a lesser extent under low-N than under high-N (Ainsworth & Long 2005; Ainsworth 2008; Long et al. 2006). Across studies using all types of CO2 fumigation technologies, there is a lower enhancement of biomass production by elevated CO2 under low-nutrient conditions (Poorter & Navas 2003). Crops grown with low amounts of N fertilization also show a greater decrease in protein concentrations under elevated CO2 than crops grown with higher N fertilization (Taub et al. 2008).

Another environmental factor that interacts with elevated CO2 is atmospheric ozone (O3), a gaseous toxin. Ground-level O3 concentrations have been increasing worldwide (and are expected to continue to increase) due to increased emissions of pollutants that react to produce O3 (Vingarzan 2004). High atmospheric concentrations of ozone can cause damage to leaves and decreased plant growth and photosynthesis (Feng et al. 2008; Morgan et al. 2003). The primary location of O3 injury to plants is the internal tissues of leaves. Decreased openness of stomata under elevated CO2 can therefore decrease exposure of sensitive tissues to ozone. Elevated CO2 substantially decreases the negative effects of high ozone on photosynthesis, growth, and seed yield in both soybeans and rice (Feng et al. 2008; Morgan et al. 2003). Across experiments with all plant species, the enhancement of growth by elevated CO2 is much greater under conditions of ozone stress than otherwise (Poorter & Navas 2003).

Current evidence suggests that that the concentrations of atmospheric CO2 predicted for the year 2100 will have major implications for plant physiology and growth. Under elevated CO2 most plant species show higher rates of photosynthesis, increased growth, decreased water use and lowered tissue concentrations of nitrogen and protein. Rising CO2 over the next century is likely to affect both agricultural production and food quality. The effects of elevated CO2 are not uniform; some species, particularly those that utilize the C4 variant of photosynthesis, show less of a response to elevated CO2 than do other types of plants. Rising CO2 is therefore likely to have complex effects on the growth and composition of natural plant communities.