, 155:441 | Cite as

Carbon isotopes and water use efficiency: sense and sensitivity

  • Ulli SeibtEmail author
  • Abazar Rajabi
  • Howard Griffiths
  • Joseph A. Berry
Physiological Ecology - Review


We revisit the relationship between plant water use efficiency and carbon isotope signatures (δ13C) of plant material. Based on the definitions of intrinsic, instantaneous and integrated water use efficiency, we discuss the implications for interpreting δ13C data from leaf to landscape levels, and across diurnal to decadal timescales. Previous studies have often applied a simplified, linear relationship between δ13C, ratios of intercellular to ambient CO2 mole fraction (C i/C a), and water use efficiency. In contrast, photosynthetic 13C discrimination (Δ) is sensitive to the ratio of the chloroplast to ambient CO2 mole fraction, C c/C a (rather than C i/C a) and, consequently, to mesophyll conductance. Because mesophyll conductance may differ between species and over time, it is not possible to determine C c/C a from the same gas exchange measurements as C i/C a. On the other hand, water use efficiency at the leaf level depends on evaporative demand, which does not directly affect Δ. Water use efficiency and Δ can thus vary independently, making it difficult to obtain trends in water use efficiency from δ13C data. As an alternative approach, we offer a model available at to explore how water use efficiency and 13C discrimination are related across leaf and canopy scales. The model provides a tool to investigate whether trends in Δ indicate changes in leaf functional traits and/or environmental conditions during leaf growth, and how they are associated with trends in plant water use efficiency. The model can be used, for example, to examine whether trends in δ13C signatures obtained from tree rings imply changes in tree water use efficiency in response to atmospheric CO2 increase. This is crucial for predicting how plants may respond to future climate change.


Carbon isotope discrimination Evaporative demand Tree ring analysis Water use efficiency 



The development of the model was inspired by the ESF/SIBAE Workshop on “Stable Isotopes in Dendroclimatology”, GFZ Potsdam, Germany, February 2007. We thank Gerd Helle and the participants of the workshop for discussions. We also thank Eric S. Ober for support. We are grateful to the two reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions. US was funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship of the European Commission (contract MOIF-CT-2004-2704).

Supplementary material

442_2007_932_MOESM1_ESM.doc (478 kb)
ESM1 (DOC 478 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ulli Seibt
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Abazar Rajabi
    • 1
    • 3
  • Howard Griffiths
    • 1
  • Joseph A. Berry
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Plant SciencesUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  2. 2.Department of Global EcologyCarnegie Institution of WashingtonStanfordUSA
  3. 3.Sugar Beet Seed Institute (SBSI)KarajIran

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