Plant and Soil

, Volume 224, Issue 1, pp 1–14

The effects of elevated [CO2] on the C:N and C:P mass ratios of plant tissues


  • Roger M. Gifford
  • Damian J. Barrett
  • Jason L. Lutze

DOI: 10.1023/A:1004790612630

Cite this article as:
Gifford, R.M., Barrett, D.J. & Lutze, J.L. Plant and Soil (2000) 224: 1. doi:10.1023/A:1004790612630


The influence of elevated CO2 concentration ([CO2]) during plant growth on the carbon:nutrient ratios of tissues depends in part on the time and space scales considered. Most evidence relates to individual plants examined over weeks to just a few years. The C:N ratio of live tissues is found to increase, decrease or remain the same under elevated [CO2]. On average it increases by about 15% under a doubled [CO2]. A testable hypothesis is proposed to explain why it increases in some situations and decreases in others. It includes the notion that only in the intermediate range of N-availability will C:N of live tissues increase under elevated [CO2]. Five hypotheses to explain the mechanism of such increase in C:N are discussed; none of these options explains all the published results. Where elevated [CO2] did increase the C:N of green leaves, that response was not necessarily expressed as a higher C:N of senesced leaves. An hypothesis is explored to explain the observed range in the degree of propogation of a CO2 effect on live tissues through to the litter derived from them. Data on C:P ratios under elevated [CO2] are sparse and also variable. They do not yet suggest a generalising-hypothesis of responses. Although, unlike for C:N, there is no theoretical expectation that C:P of plants would increase under elevated [CO2], the average trend in the data is of such an increase. The processes determining the C:P response to elevated [CO2] seem to be largely independent of those for C:N. Research to advance the topic should be structured to examine the components of the hypotheses to explain effects on C:N. This involves experiments in which plants are grown over the full range of N and of P availability from extreme limitation to beyond saturation. Measurements need to: distinguish structural from non-structural dry matter; organic from inorganic forms of the nutrient in the tissues; involve all parts of the plant to evaluate nutrient and C allocation changes with treatments; determine resorption factors during tissue senescence; and be made with cognisance of the temporal and spatial aspects of the phenomena involved.

climate changeCO2decompositionleafrootlitternutrient concentrationnutrient cycle
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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000