Ecosystem responses to elevated CO2 governed by plant–soil interactions and the cost of nitrogen acquisition

César Terrer, Sara Vicca, Benjamin D. Stocker, Bruce A. Hungate, Richard P. Phillips, Peter B. Reich, Adrien C. Finzi, I. Colin Prentice

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

145 Scopus citations


(Table presented.). Summary: Land ecosystems sequester on average about a quarter of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. It has been proposed that nitrogen (N) availability will exert an increasingly limiting effect on plants’ ability to store additional carbon (C) under rising CO2, but these mechanisms are not well understood. Here, we review findings from elevated CO2 experiments using a plant economics framework, highlighting how ecosystem responses to elevated CO2 may depend on the costs and benefits of plant interactions with mycorrhizal fungi and symbiotic N-fixing microbes. We found that N-acquisition efficiency is positively correlated with leaf-level photosynthetic capacity and plant growth, and negatively with soil C storage. Plants that associate with ectomycorrhizal fungi and N-fixers may acquire N at a lower cost than plants associated with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. However, the additional growth in ectomycorrhizal plants is partly offset by decreases in soil C pools via priming. Collectively, our results indicate that predictive models aimed at quantifying C cycle feedbacks to global change may be improved by treating N as a resource that can be acquired by plants in exchange for energy, with different costs depending on plant interactions with microbial symbionts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)507-522
Number of pages16
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2018


  • CO
  • Free-Air CO enrichment (FACE)
  • N-fixation
  • mycorrhizas
  • nitrogen
  • photosynthesis
  • soil carbon
  • soil organic matter (SOM)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


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