Research Brief

Grassland plants react unexpectedly to high levels of carbon dioxide


Plants are responding in unexpected ways to increased carbon dioxide in the air, according to a twenty-year study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota and published in the journal Science. For the first 12 years, researchers found what they expected regarding how different types of grasses reacted to carbon dioxide. However, researchers’ findings took an unanticipated turn during the last eight years of the study.

Researchers planted 88 plots with two different types of grasses, warm-season C4 grasses and cool-season C3 grasses, and exposed them to different levels of carbon dioxide, current carbon dioxide levels and the elevated levels the Earth might experience later this century due to human activity.

“Because carbon dioxide is needed by plants to grow, we expected grasses that have the C3 photosynthetic pathway to grow more under elevated CO2, because these plants are known to be able to increase their CO2 capture as CO2 levels rise. We also expected that growth of grasses with the C4 photosynthetic pathway would not be affected by higher CO2 levels, because these plants are generally less able to capture extra CO2 as CO2 levels rise,” said University of Minnesota Professor Peter Reich. “While that held true for the first dozen years, that pattern changed.”

Researchers found that during the last eight years of the study, C4 plant species grew more in an elevated CO2 environment than C3 plants. While it’s uncertain why this shift happened, these findings could have significant implications.

“If mature grasslands worldwide behave like our experiment did, this could have long lasting impacts on how we think about the conservation and restoration of grasslands around the world,” Reich said. “Grasslands cover between 30 and 40 percent of land and play a key role in soaking up carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels.”

Along with impacts on conservation and restoration planning, these data could be used to help computer models better predict how plants will respond to changing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

“Our results suggest that the predictions made by these models might not be quite right and that we should not be overly confident about our assumptions regarding where, and by how much, land ecosystems will keep absorbing extra CO2 out of the air,” Reich said.

Reich, a professor with the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences’ (CFANS) Department of Forest Resources and Institute on the Environment (IonE) fellow, was the lead researcher on the study. Other study investigators included Professor Sarah Hobbie and graduate student Melissa Pastore, with the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences, and Professor Tali Lee from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.

About University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences
The University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) brings science-driven innovators together to discover hands-on solutions to global challenges. With 10 research and outreach centers across Minnesota, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and the Bell Museum of Natural History, CFANS offer unparalleled experiential learning opportunities for students and the community. CFANS students enter career fields with some of the best job outlooks in the country, including 13 undergraduate majors and more than 25 minors ranging from agricultural education and marketing communications to conservation biology and forest and natural resource management, health and nutrition, to the future of food and agriculture management with a focus on business and technology.

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