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Keywords:

  • Carbon metabolism;
  • CO2 enrichment;
  • grain quality;
  • nitrogen metabolism

The atmospheric CO2 concentration has risen from the preindustrial level of approximately 290 μl l−1 to more than 350 μl l−1 in 1993. The current rate of rise is such that concentrations of 420 μl l−1 are expected in the next 20 years. For C3 plants, higher CO2 levels favour the photosynthetic carbon reduction cycle over the photorespiratory cycle, resulting in higher rates of carbohydrate production and plant productivity. The change in balance between the two photosynthetic cycles appears to alter nitrogen and carbon metabolism in the leaf, possibly causing decreases in nitrogen concentrations in the leaf. This may result from increases in the concentration of storage carbohydrates of high molecular weight (soluble or insoluble) and/or changes in distribution of protein or other nitrogen containing compounds. Uptake of nitrogen may also be reduced at high CO2 due to lower transpiration rates. Decreases in foliar nitrogen levels have important implications for production of crops such as wheat, because fertilizer management is often based on leaf chemical analysis, using standards estimated when the CO2 levels were considerably lower. These standards will need to be re-evaluated as the CO2 concentration continues to rise. Lower levels of leaf nitrogen will also have implications for the quality of wheat grain produced, because it is likely that less nitrogen would be retranslocated during grain filling.