Photosynthetic nitrogen-use efficiency of species that differ inherently in specific leaf area
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Factors that contribute to interspecific variation in photosynthetic nitrogen-use efficiency (PNUE, the ratio of CO2 assimilation rate to leaf organic nitrogen content) were investigated, comparing ten dicotyledonous species that differ inherently in specific leaf area (SLA, leaf area:leaf dry mass). Plants were grown hydroponically in controlled environment cabinets at two irradiances (200 and 1000 μmol m–2 s–1). CO2 and irradiance response curves of photosynthesis were measured followed by analysis of the chlorophyll, Rubisco, nitrate and total nitrogen contents of the leaves. At both irradiances, SLA ranged more than twofold across species. High-SLA species had higher in situ rates of photosynthesis per unit leaf mass, but similar rates on an area basis. The organic N content per unit leaf area was lower for the high-SLA species and consequently PNUE at ambient light conditions (PNUEamb) was higher in those plants. Differences were somewhat smaller, but still present, when PNUE was determined at saturating irradiances (PNUEmax). An assessment was made of the relative importance of the various factors that underlay interspecific variation in PNUE. For plants grown under low irradiance, PNUEamb of high-SLA species was higher primarily due to their lower N content per unit leaf area. Low-SLA species clearly had an overinvestment in photosynthetic N under these conditions. In addition, high SLA-species allocated a larger fraction of organic nitrogen to thylakoids and Rubisco, which further increased PNUEamb. High-SLA species grown under high irradiance showed higher PNUEamb mainly due to a higher Rubisco specific activity. Other factors that contributed were again their lower contents of Norg per unit leaf area and a higher fraction of photosynthetic N in electron transport and Rubisco. For PNUEmax, differences between species in organic leaf nitrogen content per se were no longer important and higher PNUEmax of the high SLA species was due to a higher fraction of N in␣photosynthetic compounds (for low-light plants) and a higher Rubisco specific activity (for high-light grown plants).
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