Photosynthetic Responses to Changing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentration

  • George Bowes
Part of the Advances in Photosynthesis and Respiration book series (AIPH, volume 5)


When plants made the transition to land, atmospheric CO2 concentration was up to 16-fold higher than today; since then it has fluctuated, but with an overall decline to very low values during the last glacial maximum. Modern-day plants exhibit photosynthetic adaptations to cope with a low [CO2]/[O2] ratio. These include: high specificity and low Km for CO2 of ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase-oxygenase (Rubisco); pathways to recapture photorespiratory C and N; CO2 concentrating mechanisms in some terrestrial and aquatic species based on C4 or HCO 3 -use systems; improvements in stomatal regulation; and possibly lower ecological compensation points.

Since the last glacial maximum, atmospheric CO2 concentration has doubled to 360 μmol mol−4, but it is still relatively low, and does not saturate C3 photosynthesis; the mainstay of some 95% of terrestrial species. Herbarium and fossil studies indicate plants may be readapting to this rise by decreases in stomatal density. A further doubling of CO2 concentration has the potential to reduce the O2 inhibition of Rubisco and halve photorespiration; reduce stomatal conductance and enhance water use efficiency; increase the C/N ratio; lower dark respiration; exert growth modulator effects; and in aquatic species influence the photosynthetic affinity for dissolved inorganic carbon. These enhance the use of other resources in an ‘efficiency effect’, but it is not always achieved because of acclimation. After an initial 50% increase in assimilation, acclimation often entails down-regulation of the Rubisco- and/or ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate-limited portions of the assimilation versus intercellular curve. Acclimation may be a stress response when carbohydrate accumulation causes chloroplast deformation, but in most instances it seems to be an optimization process to balance carbon acquisition with a limited utilization capacity, in part by reallocation of N. It usually involves a reduction in Rubisco protein and/or activation, and possibly up-regulation of carbohydrate metabolism. Some field-grown plants, notably soybean, show no down-regulation of the assimilation versus intercellular CO2 curve. Plants with substantial sink capacity, such as crop and competitive-strategy species, have the greatest response to CO2-enrichment, with on average a 30–40% stimulation of biomass; while those with small sinks, such as stress-tolerant species, have the least. Even C4 species may show growth stimulation through greater water use efficiency and leaf area. Among submersed species, the photosynthesis and growth of CO2-only users is enhanced, but HCO 3 -users show minimal response. Enrichment can stimulate photosynthesis and growth when water, nutrients or light are suboptimal, and temperatures are high, though extreme conditions can abolish the benefits. The photosynthetic CO2 response is not always the major factor influencing competitive interactions among species, but directly or indirectly rising CO2 concentration will likely alter the species distribution and composition of ecosystems.


Plant Cell Environ Stomatal Density Crassulacean Acid Metabolism Plant Sink Capacity Elevated Carbon Dioxide 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • George Bowes
    • 1
  1. 1.Departmsent of BotanyUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA

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