New Phytologist and the Environment


  • Richard Norby Environment Section Editor,

  • Holly Slater Managing Editor

New Phytologist has always welcomed papers across a broad spectrum of plant biology. In the past decade, however, papers considering various aspects of plant interactions with the environment, including research on atmospheric and climatic change, environmental stress, ecophysiology and plant–soil interactions, have become increasingly prominent in these pages. In the first volume of 2007 (vol. 173), for example, there are some 27 papers that consider different aspects of how plants respond to their environment. It has not always been so. The relatively recent change in scope is evident when looking back over the more than 100 years that New Phytologist has been published. For much of the life of the journal, papers on plant morphology, physiology and development, and taxonomy predominated, and the few papers that considered the environment focused on natural history, phytogeography, or other observations of plants in their environment, such as Francis Darwin's extensive observations of phenology (Darwin, 1919). The few papers in which the environment was manipulated were not attempting to replicate natural environmental variability; for example, Ballard (1941) reported on the ‘depressant effect of (very high concentrations of) carbon dioxide upon photosynthesis’. Why this change in focus?

‘Nowhere is the need to use the best tools and approaches greater, and the mandate to integrate across disciplines more compelling, than in meeting the challenge of global atmospheric and climatic change.’

Mooney et al. (1987) traced the origins of the discipline of physiological ecology to the substantial technological advances that made possible the precise quantification, under natural conditions, of the microenvironment of plants and their metabolic response. Concurrently, theoretical developments provided a conceptual framework for relating environmental factors to plant response. These developments, beginning in the mid- to late 1950s, resulted in subsequent papers in New Phytologist that made use of both technological and theoretical advances. To cite a few examples: Whiteman & Koller's (1967) research on CO2 exchange in relation to CO2 concentration and irradiance; Mague & Burris's (1972) application of the new technique of acetylene reduction to measure nitrogen fixation; Teare & Kanemasu's (1972) use of porometers and psychrometers to study water potential gradients in a canopy. Mooney (1991) also noted the increasing interest among physiological ecologists to apply their discipline to the problems of a threatened environment, and that trend is apparent in the rapid increase, during the 1990s, of papers in New Phytologist on plant responses to ozone, acid rain and heavy metals. Technological advances continue, and now we see creative uses of molecular approaches applied to questions in physiological ecology (Cooke & Weih, 2005).

Nowhere is the need to use the best tools and approaches greater, and the mandate to integrate across disciplines more compelling, than in meeting the challenge of global atmospheric and climatic change. Currently, global change is a key focus area of the Environment Section in New Phytologist. Papers on elevated atmospheric CO2 began to appear in the early 1990s, and on climate change a few years later, and their numbers have increased dramatically. More papers have been published in New Phytologist on climate change or elevated CO2 in the past 5 years than ever before. Perhaps this trend reflects the warming of the planet: five of the six warmest years on record have occurred in the current decade. New Phytologist has published widely cited and influential reviews and synthesis reports (e.g. Ceulemans & Mousseau, 1994; Saxe et al., 2001; Badeck et al., 2004; Nowak et al., 2004, to name just a few). Primary research reports have broken the ground for new lines of research (Woodward & Kelly, 1995) and have described new tools and approaches (Miglietta et al., 2001; Taylor et al., 2005; Keel et al., 2006).

Responding to the challenges created by atmospheric and climatic change requires the coordinated efforts of scientists across many disciplines, working at scales ranging from the molecular to the whole plant, to the ecosystem and the globe. Plant biology has a dual role in such analyses, as both a regulator of atmospheric CO2 and as a key component of how ecosystems, and the goods and services they provide, will respond. Many critical analyses needed by policy makers are beyond the scope of experiments, and we must rely upon models to project responses of terrestrial ecosystems across time and space. It is incumbent upon plant biologists to provide the data and understanding from which to build and test ecosystem and global models. Synthesis papers can provide a useful and meaningful metric to modelers out of the seeming cacophony of many diverse and conflicting research reports (Medlyn et al., 2001; Curtis et al., 2003; Ainsworth & Long, 2005). Conversely, finding appropriate procedures for integrating data with models is another important objective of global change analyses (Luo, 2001; Classen & Langley, 2005).

Physiological measurements to inform global models have been a hallmark of Owen Atkin's research program, and we are pleased to announce his appointment to the Editorial Board. Owen's specialty is plant respiration. His research group at the University of York (UK) has been quantifying the climate dependence of respiration and determining the impact of variations in respiration on net carbon uptake over wide spatial and temporal scales (Atkin et al., 2005, 2006). He has contributed much to the understanding of thermal acclimation of respiration to long-term changes in temperature (Atkin & Tjoelker, 2003). Following the trend in physiological ecology of employing a wide range of creative tools, he has used biochemical analyses, stable isotope techniques and electron microscopy to investigate the physiological and biochemical basis of acclimation (Armstrong et al., 2006; Hartley et al., 2006). Process-level understanding of acclimation will inform global carbon cycle models (Atkin et al., 2005; Atkinson et al., 2007), and variation in leaf respiration along broad climate gradients should prove useful for modeling vegetation shifts with climate change (Wright et al., 2006). Owen's interests and expertise mesh well with the other Environment Section editors – Andrea Polle, David Ackerly, Peter Curtis, Rich Norby and Ian Woodward – whose perspectives range from the biochemical to the global scales.

The Environment Section, then, is thriving. But categorization can be a dangerous, albeit necessary, business. Consider a paper describing how a molecular-scale change in root membrane structure affects how a plant alters its rhizosphere, thereby stimulating nutrient availability and increasing the plant's fitness when confronted with climate change. Would such a paper be considered a Physiology & Development paper, or belonging to the Interactions category, or does it properly belong to the Environment section of New Phytologist? Is it a report of basic research, dealing with fundamental aspects of plant biology, or is it applied research, focused on understanding and predicting how plants will respond to human-caused environmental changes? The boundaries are blurred, and that is as it should be.