Global photosynthetic capacity is optimized to the environment

Nicholas G. Smith*, Trevor F. Keenan, I. Colin Prentice, Han Wang, Ian J. Wright, Ülo Niinemets, Kristine Y. Crous, Tomas F. Domingues, Rossella Guerrieri, F. Yoko Ishida, Jens Kattge, Eric L. Kruger, Vincent Maire, Alistair Rogers, Shawn P. Serbin, Lasse Tarvainen, Henrique F. Togashi, Philip A. Townsend, Meng Wang, Lasantha K. WeerasingheShuang Xi Zhou

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    144 Citations (Scopus)
    17 Downloads (Pure)


    Earth system models (ESMs) use photosynthetic capacity, indexed by the maximum Rubisco carboxylation rate (Vcmax), to simulate carbon assimilation and typically rely on empirical estimates, including an assumed dependence on leaf nitrogen determined from soil fertility. In contrast, new theory, based on biochemical coordination and co-optimization of carboxylation and water costs for photosynthesis, suggests that optimal Vcmax can be predicted from climate alone, irrespective of soil fertility. Here, we develop this theory and find it captures 64% of observed variability in a global, field-measured Vcmax dataset for C3 plants. Soil fertility indices explained substantially less variation (32%). These results indicate that environmentally regulated biophysical constraints and light availability are the first-order drivers of global photosynthetic capacity. Through acclimation and adaptation, plants efficiently utilize resources at the leaf level, thus maximizing potential resource use for growth and reproduction. Our theory offers a robust strategy for dynamically predicting photosynthetic capacity in ESMs.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)506-517
    Number of pages12
    JournalEcology Letters
    Issue number3
    Early online date4 Jan 2019
    Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2019. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • carbon cycle
    • carboxylation
    • coordination
    • ecophysiology
    • electron transport
    • Jmax
    • light availability
    • nitrogen availability
    • temperature
    • VCMAX


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