Environmental change and carbon limitation in trees: a biochemical, ecophysiological and ecosystem appraisal

Peter Millard, Martin Sommerkorn, Gwen-Aelle Grelet

Research output: Contribution to journalLiterature reviewpeer-review

219 Citations (Scopus)


As C-3 photosynthesis is not yet CO2-saturated, forests offer the possibility of enhanced growth and carbon (C) sequestration with rising atmospheric CO2. However, at an ecosystem scale, increased photosynthetic rates are not always translated into faster tree growth, and in free air carbon enrichment (FACE) experiments with trees, the stimulation in above-ground growth often declines with time. So is tree growth C-limited? The evidence is reviewed here at three different scales. First, at the biochemical scale, the role of Rubisco is discussed by considering its evolution and role as a nitrogen (N) storage protein. Second, at the ecophysiological scale, C allocation to gain nutrients from the soil is considered and it is argued that any C limitation is only through a limitation to soil nutrient cycling. Finally, the response of forest ecosystems to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations is considered and evidence from FACE experiments is discussed. From the three lines of evidence we conclude that the growth of trees is not C-limited, with the key to understanding future responses to climate change being turnover of soil organic matter and nutrient cycling.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-28
Number of pages18
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number1
Early online date19 Apr 2007
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2007


  • carbon priming
  • ecosystem carbon cycling
  • mycorrhizal fungi
  • nitrogen (N) storage
  • Rubisco
  • soil organic matter
  • soil respiration


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