Higher rates of nitrate assimilation are required to support faster growth in enhanced carbon dioxide. To investigate how this is achieved, tobacco plants were grown on high nitrate and high light in ambient and enhanced (700 μmol mol–1) carbon dioxide. Surprisingly, enhanced carbon dioxide did not increase leaf nitrate reductase (NR) activity in the middle of the photoperiod. Possible reasons for this anomalous result were investigated. (a) Measurements of biomass, nitrate, amino acids and glutamine in plants fertilized once and twice daily with 12 mol m–3 nitrate showed that enhanced carbon dioxide did not lead to a nitrate limitation in these plants. (b) Enhanced carbon dioxide modified the diurnal regulation of NR activity in source leaves. The transcript for nia declined during the light period in a similar manner in ambient and enhanced carbon dioxide. The decline of the transcript correlated with a decrease of nitrate in the leaf, and was temporarily reversed after re-irrigating with nitrate in the second part of the photoperiod. The decline of the transcript was not correlated with changes of sugars or glutamine. NR activity and protein decline in the second part of the photoperiod, and NR is inactivated in the dark in ambient carbon dioxide. The decline of NR activity was smaller and dark inactivation was partially reversed in enhanced carbon dioxide, indicating that post-transcriptional or post-translational regulation of NR has been modified. The increased activation and stability of NR in enhanced carbon dioxide was correlated with higher sugars and lower glutamine in the leaves. (c) Enhanced carbon dioxide led to increased levels of the minor amino acids in leaves. (d) Enhanced carbon dioxide led to a large decrease of glycine and a small decrease of serine in leaves of mature plants. The glycine:serine ratio decreased in source leaves of older plants and seedlings. The consequences of a lower rate of photorespiration for the levels of glutamine and the regulation of nitrogen metabolism are discussed. (e) Enhanced carbon dioxide also modified the diurnal regulation of NR in roots. The nia transcript increased after nitrate fertilization in the early and the second part of the photoperiod. The response of the transcript was not accentuated in enhanced carbon dioxide. NR activity declined slightly during the photoperiod in ambient carbon dioxide, whereas it increased 2-fold in enhanced carbon dioxide. The increase of root NR activity in enhanced carbon dioxide was preceded by a transient increase of sugars, and was followed by a decline of sugars, a faster decrease of nitrate than in ambient carbon dioxide, and an increase of nitrite in the roots. (f) To interpret the physiological significance of these changes in nitrate metabolism, they were compared with the current growth rate of the plants. (g) In 4–5-week-old plants, the current rate of growth was similar in ambient and enhanced carbon dioxide (≈ 0·4 g–1 d–1). Enhanced carbon dioxide only led to small changes of NR activity, nitrate decreased, and overall amino acids were not significantly increased. (h) Young seedlings had a high growth rate (0·5 g–1 d–1) in ambient carbon dioxide, that was increased by another 20% in enhanced carbon dioxide. Enhanced carbon dioxide led to larger increases of NR activity and NR activation, a 2–3-fold increase of glutamine, a 50% increase of glutamate, and a 2–3-fold increase in minor amino acids. It also led to a higher nitrate level. It is argued that enhanced carbon dioxide leads to a very effective stimulation of nitrate uptake, nitrate assimilation and amino acid synthesis in seedlings. This will play an important role in allowing faster growth rates in enhanced carbon dioxide at this stage.