Contrasting growth response of an N2-fixing and non-fixing forb to elevated CO2: Dependence on soil N supply

Tali D. Lee, Mark G. Tjoelker, Peter B. Reich, Michael P. Russelle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


With the ability to symbiotically fix atmospheric N2, legumes may lack the N-limitations thought to constrain plant response to elevated concentrations of atmospheric CO2. The growth and photosynthetic responses of two perennial grassland species were compared to test the hypotheses that (1) the CO2 response of wild species is limited at low N availability, (2) legumes respond to a greater extent than non-fixing forbs to elevated CO2, and (3) elevated CO2 stimulates symbiotic N2 fixation, resulting in an increased amount of N derived from the atmosphere. This study investigated the effects of atmospheric CO 2 concentration (365 and 700 μmol mol-1) and N addition on whole plant growth and C and N acquisition in an N 2-fixing legume (Lupinus perennis) and a non-fixing forb (Achillea millefolium) in controlled-chamber environments. To evaluate the effects of a wide range of N availability on the CO2 response, we incorporated six levels of soil N addition starting with native field soil inherently low in N (field soil + 0, 4, 8, 12, 16, or 20 g N m-2 yr-1). Whole plant growth, leaf net photosynthetic rates (A), and the proportion of N derived from N2 fixation were determined in plants grown from seed over one growing season. Both species increased growth with CO2 enrichment, but this response was mediated by N supply only for the non-fixer, Achillea. Its response depended on mineral N supply as growth enhancements under elevated CO2 increased from 0% in low N soil to +25% at the higher levels of N addition. In contrast, Lupinus plants had 80% greater biomass under elevated CO2 regardless of N treatment. Although partial photosynthetic acclimation to CO2 enrichment occurred, both species maintained comparably higher A in elevated compared to ambient CO 2 (+38%). N addition facilitated increased A in Achillea, however, in neither species did additional N availability affect the acclimation response of A to CO2. Elevated CO2 increased plant total N yield by 57% in Lupinus but had no effect on Achillea. The increased N in Lupinus came from symbiotic N2 fixation, which resulted in a 47% greater proportion of N derived from fixation relative to other sources of N. These results suggest that compared to non-fixing forbs, N2-fixers exhibit positive photosynthetic and growth responses to increased atmospheric CO2 that are independent of soil N supply. The enhanced amount of N derived from N2 fixation under elevated CO2 presumably helps meet the increased N demand in N2-fixing species. This response may lead to modified roles of N2-fixers and N 2-fixer/non-fixer species interactions in grassland communities, especially those that are inherently N-poor, under projected rising atmospheric CO2.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)475-486
Number of pages12
JournalPlant and Soil
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2003

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank C. Buschena, J. Goth, T. Johnson, A. Karp-inski, O. Sprenger and D. Fiala for assistance with data collection, harvests, and sample preparation. We also appreciate the helpful suggestions and comments of two anonymous reviewers. This study was supported in part by National Science Foundation Pre-doctoral and University of Minnesota Graduate School Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship Awards to Tali D. Lee, and by National Science Foundation and United States Department of Energy awards to Peter B. Reich.


  • Elevated CO
  • Legume
  • N limitation
  • Photosynthetic acclimation


Dive into the research topics of 'Contrasting growth response of an N2-fixing and non-fixing forb to elevated CO2: Dependence on soil N supply'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this