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Strong photosynthetic acclimation and enhanced water‐use efficiency in grassland functional groups persist over 21 years of CO2 enrichment, independent of nitrogen supply

Pastore, Melissa A., Lee, Tali D., Hobbie, Sarah E., Reich, Peter B.
Global change biology 2019 v.25 no.9 pp. 3031-3044
C3 plants, C4 plants, acclimation, carbon dioxide, drought, forbs, free air carbon dioxide enrichment, gas exchange, grasses, grasslands, herbaceous plants, leaves, legumes, models, nitrogen, perennials, photosynthesis, prediction, stomatal conductance, uncertainty, water use efficiency, Minnesota
Uncertainty about long‐term leaf‐level responses to atmospheric CO₂ rise is a major knowledge gap that exists because of limited empirical data. Thus, it remains unclear how responses of leaf gas exchange to elevated CO₂ (eCO₂) vary among plant species and functional groups, or across different levels of nutrient supply, and whether they persist over time for long‐lived perennials. Here, we report the effects of eCO₂ on rates of net photosynthesis and stomatal conductance in 14 perennial grassland species from four functional groups over two decades in a Minnesota Free‐Air CO₂ Enrichment experiment, BioCON. Monocultures of species belonging to C₃ grasses, C₄ grasses, forbs, and legumes were exposed to two levels of CO₂ and nitrogen supply in factorial combinations over 21 years. eCO₂ increased photosynthesis by 12.9% on average in C₃ species, substantially less than model predictions of instantaneous responses based on physiological theory and results of other studies, even those spanning multiple years. Acclimation of photosynthesis to eCO₂ was observed beginning in the first year and did not strengthen through time. Yet, contrary to expectations, the response of photosynthesis to eCO₂ was not enhanced by increased nitrogen supply. Differences in responses among herbaceous plant functional groups were modest, with legumes responding the most and C₄ grasses the least as expected, but did not further diverge over time. Leaf‐level water‐use efficiency increased by 50% under eCO₂ primarily because of reduced stomatal conductance. Our results imply that enhanced nitrogen supply will not necessarily diminish photosynthetic acclimation to eCO₂ in nitrogen‐limited systems, and that significant and consistent declines in stomatal conductance and increases in water‐use efficiency under eCO₂ may allow plants to better withstand drought.