Widespread foliage δ15N depletion under elevated CO2: inferences for the nitrogen cycle


Hormoz BassiriRad, tel. 312-996-8674,
fax 312-996-2805, e-mail: hormoz@uic.edu


Leaf 15N signature is a powerful tool that can provide an integrated assessment of the nitrogen (N) cycle and whether it is influenced by rising atmospheric CO2 concentration. We tested the hypothesis that elevated CO2 significantly changes foliage δ15N in a wide range of plant species and ecosystem types. This objective was achieved by determining the δ15N of foliage of 27 field-grown plant species from six free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE) experiments representing desert, temperate forest, Mediterranean-type, grassland prairie, and agricultural ecosystems. We found that within species, the δ15N of foliage produced under elevated CO2 was significantly lower (P<0.038) compared with that of foliage grown under ambient conditions. Further analysis of foliage δ15N by life form and growth habit revealed that the CO2 effect was consistent across all functional groups tested. The examination of two chaparral shrubs grown for 6 years under a wide range of CO2 concentrations (25–75 Pa) also showed a significant and negative correlation between growth CO2 and leaf δ15N. In a select number of species, we measured bulk soil δ15N at a depth of 10 cm, and found that the observed depletion of foliage δ15N in response to elevated CO2 was unrelated to changes in the soil δ15N. While the data suggest a strong influence of elevated CO2 on the N cycle in diverse ecosystems, the exact site(s) at which elevated CO2 alters fractionating processes of the N cycle remains unclear. We cannot rule out the fact that the pattern of foliage δ15N responses to elevated CO2 reported here resulted from a general drop in δ15N of the source N, caused by soil-driven processes. There is a stronger possibility, however, that the general depletion of foliage δ15N under high CO2 may have resulted from changes in the fractionating processes within the plant/mycorrhizal system.