Global-scale environmental control of plant photosynthetic capacity

Ashehad A. Ali, Chonggang Xu, Alistair Rogers, Nathan G. McDowell, Belinda E. Medlyn, Rosie A. Fisher, Stan D. Wullschleger, Peter B. Reich, Jasper A. Vrugt, William L. Bauerle, Louis S. Santiago, Cathy J. Wilson

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95 Citations (Scopus)


Photosynthetic capacity, determined by light harvesting and carboxylation reactions, is a key plant trait that determines the rate of photosynthesis; however, in Earth System Models (ESMs) at a reference temperature, it is either a fixed value for a given plant functional type or derived from a linear function of leaf nitrogen content. In this study, we conducted a comprehensive analysis that considered correlations of environmental factors with photosynthetic capacity as determined by maximum carboxylation (Vc,m) rate scaled to 25°C (i.e., Vc,25; µmol CO2·m-2·s-1) and maximum electron transport rate (Jmax) scaled to 25°C (i.e., J25; µmol electron·m-2·s-1) at the global scale. Our results showed that the percentage of variation in observed Vc,25 and J25 explained jointly by the environmental factors (i.e., day length, radiation, temperature, and humidity) were 2-2.5 times and 6-9 times of that explained by area-based leaf nitrogen content, respectively. Environmental factors influenced photosynthetic capacity mainly through photosynthetic nitrogen use efficiency, rather than through leaf nitrogen content. The combination of leaf nitrogen content and environmental factors was able to explain ∼56% and ∼66% of the variation in Vc,25 and J25 at the global scale, respectively. Our analyses suggest that model projections of plant photosynthetic capacity and hence land-atmosphere exchange under changing climatic conditions could be substantially improved if environmental factors are incorporated into algorithms used to parameterize photosynthetic capacity in ESMs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2349-2365
Number of pages17
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Climate change
  • Climate variables
  • Earth System Models
  • Leaf nitrogen content
  • Photosynthetic capacity
  • Plant traits


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