Plant and Soil

, Volume 187, Issue 2, pp 251–263

Carbon use in root respiration as affected by elevated atmospheric O2

  • Hans Lambers
  • Ineke Stulen
  • Adrie van der Wert
Carbon Allocation Mechanisms and Controls Direct Carbon Losses from Roots

DOI: 10.1007/BF00017091

Cite this article as:
Lambers, H., Stulen, I. & van der Wert, A. Plant Soil (1995) 187: 251. doi:10.1007/BF00017091


The use of fossil fuel is predicted to cause an increase of the atmospheric CO2 concentration, which will affect the global pattern of temperature and precipitation. It is therefore essential to incorporate effects of temperature and water supply on the carbon requirement for root respiration of plants to predict effects of elevated [CO2] on the carbon budget of natural and managed systems.

There is insufficient information to support the contentention that an increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will enhance the CO2 concentration in the soil to an extent that is likely to affect root respiration. Moreover, there is no convincing evidence for a direct effect of elevated atmospheric [CO2] on the rate of root respiration per unit root mass or the fraction of carbon required for root respiration. However, there are likely to be indirect effects of elevated [CO2] on the carbon requirement of plants in natural systems.

Firstly, it is very likely that the carbon requirement of root respiration relative to that fixed in photosynthesis will increase when elevated [CO2] induces a decrease in nutrient status of the plants. Although earlier papers have emphasized that elevated [CO2] favours investment of biomass in roots relative to that in leaves, these are in fact indirect effects. The increase in root weight ratio is due to the more rapid depletion of nutrients in the root environment as a consequence of enhanced growth. This will decrease the specific rate of root respiration, but increase the carbon requirement as a fraction of the carbon fixed in photosynthesis. It is likely that these effects will be minor in systems where the nutrient supply is very high, e.g. in many managed arable systems, and increase with decreasing soil fertility, i.e. in many natural systems.

Secondly, a decrease in rainfall in some parts of the world may cause a shortage in water supply which favours the carbon partitioning to roots. Water stress is likely to reduce rates of root respiration per unit root mass, but enhance the fraction of total assimilates required for root respiration, due to greater allocation of biomass to roots.

Increased temperatures are unlikely to affect the specific rate of root respiration in all species. Broadly generalized, the effect of temperature on biomass allocation is that the relative investment of biomass in roots is lowest at a certain optimum temperature and increases at both higher and lower temperatures. The root respiration of some species acclimates to growth temperature, so that the effect of global temperature rise is entirely accounted for by the effect of temperature on biomass allocation. The specific rate of root respiration of other species will increase with global warming. In response to global warming the carbon requirement of roots is likely to decrease in temperate regions, when temperatures are suboptimal for the roots' capacity to acquire water. Here global warming will induce a smaller biomass allocation to the roots. Conversely, the carbon requirements are more likely to increase in mediterranean environments, where temperatures are often supraoptimal and a rise in temperature will induce greater allocation of biomass to the roots.

Key words

carbon budget CO2 global change nutrient status root respiration root weight ratio temperature water stress 

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hans Lambers
    • 1
  • Ineke Stulen
    • 2
  • Adrie van der Wert
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Plant Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Plant BiologyUniversity of GroningenHarenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Research Institute for Agrobiology and Soil Fertility (AB-DLO)WageningenThe Netherlands