Why are Nitrogen Concentrations in Plant Tissues Lower under Elevated CO2? A Critical Examination of the Hypotheses


  • Supported by the Cullen Fund of Southwestern University to D. R. Taub.

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Plants grown under elevated atmospheric [CO2] typically have decreased tissue concentrations of N compared with plants grown under current ambient [CO2]. The physiological mechanisms responsible for this phenomenon have not been definitely established, although a considerable number of hypotheses have been advanced to account for it. In this review we discuss and critically evaluate these hypotheses. One contributing factor to the decreases in tissue N concentrations clearly is dilution of N by increased photosynthetic assimilation of C. In addition, studies on intact plants show strong evidence for a general decrease in the specific uptake rates (uptake per unit mass or length of root) of N by roots under elevated CO2. This decreased root uptake appears likely to be the result both of decreased N demand by shoots and of decreased ability of the soil-root system to supply N. The best-supported mechanism for decreased N supply is a decrease in transpiration-driven mass flow of N in soils due to decreased stomatal conductance at elevated CO2, although some evidence suggests that altered root system architecture may also play a role. There is also limited evidence suggesting that under elevated CO2, plants may exhibit increased rates of N loss through volatilization and/or root exudation, further contributing to lowering tissue N concentrations.