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Dewar, R.C.

1996

Annals of Botany 78(1): 125-136

The correlation between plant growth and intercepted radiation: an interpretation in terms of optimal plant nitrogen content

Photosynthesis of leaves is commonly observed to have a saturating response to increases in their nitrogen (N) content, while the response of plant maintenance respiration is more nearly linear over the normal range of tissue N contents. Hence, for a given amount of foliage, net primary productivity (NPP) may have a maximum value with respect to variations in plant N content. Using a simple analytically-solvable model of NPP, this idea is formulated and its broad implications for plant growth are explored at the scale of a closed stand of vegetation. The maximum-NPP hypothesis implies that NPP is proportional to intercepted radiation, as commonly observed. The light utilization coefficient (epsilon), defined as the slope of this relationship, is predicted to be epsilon = alphaYg(1-lambda)2, where alpha is the quantum yield, Yg is the biosynthetic efficiency, and lambda is a dimensionless combination of physiological and environmental parameters of the model. The maximum-NPP hypothesis is also consistent with observations that whole-plant respiration (R) is an approximately constant proportion of gross canopy photosynthesis (Ac), and predicts their ratio to be R:Ac = 1 - Yg (1-lambda). Using realistic parameter values, predicted values for epsilon and R:AC are typical of C3 plants. Epsilon is predicted to be independent of plant N supply, consistent with observations that long-term growth responses to N fertilization are dominated by increased light interception associated with increased growth allocation to leaf area. Observed acclimated responses of plants to atmospheric [CO2], light and temperature are interpreted in terms of the model.
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