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Not All Plants Absorb Carbon Dioxide Equally

NSF Award:

Long-term Interactions Among Bodiversity, CO2, and N in a Perennial Grassland Ecosystem  (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities)

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Increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) can lead to temperature changes, shifts in rainfall, and rising sea levels. Plants, which use CO2 from the atmosphere to grow, are viewed as CO2-capturing carbon sinks that offset the rise of CO2 sources such as fossil fuel burning.

A variety of factors such as temperature and light levels influence the pace of CO2 uptake, but less is known about the size and duration in this "net photosynthetic rate" across species, over time, and in conjunction with other nutrients like nitrogen. 

Understanding more about the range of possible photosynthetic responses requires a large-scale field experiment in which both species and gas levels are manipulated. The BioCON experiment at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve is one such field experiment. It allows scientists to apply controlled amounts of CO2 gas to carefully designed arrays of different plant species.

Researchers participating in BioCON discovered that grassland plants may be more variable in their ability to scrub away excess CO2 than previously documented. Just as some brands of paper towels tackle tough kitchen spills better than others, it turns out plant species differ measurably in the way they absorb pollution.

In this study, scientists at the Universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota conducted an 11-year experiment to evaluate whether a grassland plant's "functional group" (characterized by physiological differences in the way different species process CO2) plays a role in how effective it is as a carbon sink.  

Results demonstrated that functional groups differ markedly (between 4 percent and 13 percent) in their response to elevated CO2 in the long term. Nitrogen levels did not appear to change these results significantly. Previous studies had shown that elevated CO2 could increase photosynthetic rates as much as 25 percent, but these studies did not consider as many species over as long a time period. 

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Images (1 of )

  • wild lupine blooms
  • grassland study rings marked off in two-meter by two-meter plots
Wild lupines bloom at the Cedar Creek LTER site.
BioCON Experiment/NSF Cedar Creek LTER Site
Grassland study rings.
BioCON Experiment/NSF Cedar Creek LTER Site

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