Reduced plant water status under sub-ambient pCO2 limits plant productivity in the wild progenitors of C3 and C4 cereals

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Background and Aims The reduction of plant productivity by low atmospheric CO2 partial pressure (pCO2) during the last glacial period is proposed as a limiting factor for the establishment of agriculture. Supporting this hypothesis, previous work has shown that glacial pCO2 limits biomass in the wild progenitors of C3 and C4 founder crops, in part due to the direct effects of glacial pCO2 on photosynthesis. Here, we investigate the indirect role of pCO2 mediated via water status, hypothesizing that faster soil water depletion at glacial (18 Pa) compared to post-glacial (27 Pa) pCO2, due to greater stomatal conductance, feeds back to limit photosynthesis during drying cycles.

Methods We grew four wild progenitors of C3 and C4 crops at glacial and post-glacial pCO2 and investigated physiological changes in gas exchange, canopy transpiration, soil water content and water potential between regular watering events. Growth parameters including leaf area were measured.

Key Results Initial transpiration rates were higher at glacial pCO2 due to greater stomatal conductance. However, stomatal conductance declined more rapidly over the soil drying cycle in glacial pCO2 and was associated with decreased intercellular pCO2 and lower photosynthesis. Soil water content was similar between pCO2 levels as larger leaf areas at post-glacial pCO2 offset the slower depletion of water. Instead the feedback could be linked to reduced plant water status. Particularly in the C4 plants, soil–leaf water potential gradients were greater at 18 Pa compared with 27 Pa pCO2, suggesting an increased ratio of leaf evaporative demand to supply.

Conclusions Reduced plant water status appeared to cause a negative feedback on stomatal aperture in plants at glacial pCO2, thereby reducing photosynthesis. The effects were stronger in C4 species, providing a mechanism for reduced biomass at 18 Pa. These results have added significance when set against the drier climate of the glacial period.

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