• acclimation;
  • carbon dioxide;
  • carbon partitioning;
  • global change;
  • nutrient uptake;
  • photosynthesis;
  • respiration;
  • science philosophy


This paper reviews two decades of effort by the scientific community in a search for predictive understanding of plant responses to elevated [CO2]. To evaluate the progress of research in leaf photosynthesis, plant respiration, root nutrient uptake, and carbon partitioning, we divided scientific activities into four phases: (I) initial assessments derived from our existing knowledge base to provide frameworks for experimental studies; (II) experimental tests of the initial assessments; (III) in cases where assessments were invalidated, synthesis of experimental results to stimulate alternative hypotheses and further experimentation; and (IV) formation of new knowledge. This paper suggests that photosynthetic research may have gone through all four phases, considering that (a) variable responses of photosynthesis to [CO2] are generally explainable, (b) extrapolation of leaf-level studies to the global scale has been examined, and (c) molecular studies are under way. Investigation of plant respiratory responses to [CO2] has reached the third phase: experimental results have been accumulated, and mechanistic approaches are being developed to examine alternative hypotheses in search for new concepts and/or new quantitative frameworks to understand respiratory responses to elevated [CO2]. The study of nutrient uptake kinetics is still in the second phase: experimental evidence has contradicted some of the initial assessments, and more experimental studies need to be designed before generalizations can be made. It is quite unfortunate that we have not made much progress in understanding mechanisms of carbon partitioning during the past two decades. This is due in part to the fact that some of the holistic theories, such as functional balance and optimality, have not evolved into testable hypotheses to guide experimental studies. This paper urges modelers to play an increasing role in plant–CO2 research by disassembling these existing theories into hypotheses and urges experimentalists to design experiments to examine these holistic concepts.