Plant growth and competition at elevated CO2: on winners, losers and functional groups


  • Hendrik Poorter,

    Corresponding author
    1. Plant Ecophysiology, Utrecht University, PO Box 800.84, 3508 TB Utrecht, The Netherlands;
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  • Marie-Laure Navas

    1. Department ‘Science for the Protection of Plants and Ecology’, Ecole Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Montpellier, 2 Place Viala, 34060 Montpellier Cedex 1, France;
    2. Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, CNRS, 1919 Route de Mende, 34293 Montpellier Cedex 5, France
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Author for correspondence: Hendrik Poorter Tel: +31 30 2536859/2536700 Fax: +31 30 2518366 Email:



  • Summary 175

  • I. Introduction 176
  • II. Materials and Methods 177
  • III. Factors underlying the growth response 178
  • IV. Variation in biomass enhancement ratio 181
  • V. Functional groups of species 184
  • VI. The response in a more natural environment 188
  • VII. An outlook 192
  • VIII. Conclusions 193
  • Acknowledgements 193

  • References 193

  • Appendices196


The effects of increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations on vegetative growth and competitive performance were evaluated, using five meta-analyses. Paying special attention to functional groups, we analysed responses at three integration levels: carbon economy parameters, vegetative biomass of isolated plants, and growth in competition. CO2 effects on seed biomass and plant-to-plant variability were also studied. Underlying the growth stimulation is an increased unit leaf rate (ULR), especially for herbaceous dicots. This is mainly caused by an increase in the whole-plant rate of photosynthesis. The increased ULR is accompanied by a decrease in specific leaf area. The net result of these and other changes is that relative growth rate is only marginally stimulated. The biomass enhancement ratio (BER) of individually grown plants varies substantially across experiments/species, and size variability in the experimental populations is a vital factor in this. Fast-growing herbaceous C3 species respond more strongly than slow-growing C3 herbs or C4 plants. CAM species and woody plants show intermediate responses. When grown in competition, C4 species show lowest responses to elevated CO2 at high nutrient conditions, whereas at low nutrient levels N2-fixing dicots respond relatively strongly. No systematic differences were found between slow- and fast-growing species. BER values obtained for isolated plants cannot be used to estimate BER of the same species grown in interspecific competition – the CO2 response of monocultures may be a better predictor.