The oxygen isotopic composition of plant cellulose is commonly used for the interpretations of climate, ecophysiology and dendrochronology in both modern and palaeoenvironments. Further applications of this analytical tool depends on our in-depth knowledge of the isotopic fractionations associated with the biochemical pathways leading to cellulose. Here, we test two important assumptions regarding isotopic effects resulting from the location of oxygen in the carbohydrate moiety and the biosynthetic pathway towards cellulose synthesis. We show that the oxygen isotopic fractionation of the oxygen attached to carbon 2 of the glucose moieties differs from the average fractionation of the oxygens attached to carbons 3–6 from cellulose by at least 9%, for cellulose synthesized within seedlings of two different species (Triticum aestivum L. and Ricinus communis L.). The fractionation for a given oxygen in cellulose synthesized by the Triticum seedlings, which have starch as their primary carbon source, is different than the corresponding fractionation in Ricinus seedlings, within which lipids are the primary carbon source. This observation shows that the biosynthetic pathway towards cellulose affects oxygen isotope partitioning, a fact heretofore undemonstrated. Our findings may explain the species-dependent variability in the overall oxygen isotope fractionation during cellulose synthesis, and may provide much-needed insight for palaeoclimate reconstruction using fossil cellulose.