Unexpected reversal of C3 versus C4 grass response to elevated CO2 during a 20-year field experiment

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Abstract

Theory predicts and evidence shows that plant species that use the C4 photosynthetic pathway (C4 species) are less responsive to elevated carbon dioxide (eCO2) than species that use only the C3 pathway (C3 species). We document a reversal from this expected C3-C4 contrast. Over the first 12 years of a 20-year free-air CO2 enrichment experiment with 88 C3 or C4 grassland plots, we found that biomass was markedly enhanced at eCO2 relative to ambient CO2 in C3 but not C4 plots, as expected. During the subsequent 8 years, the pattern reversed: Biomass was markedly enhanced at eCO2 relative to ambient CO2 in C4 but not C3 plots. Soil net nitrogen mineralization rates, an index of soil nitrogen supply, exhibited a similar shift: eCO2 first enhanced but later depressed rates in C3 plots, with the opposite true in C4 plots, partially explaining the reversal of the eCO2 biomass response. These findings challenge the current C3-C4eCO2 paradigm and show that even the best-supported short-term drivers of plant response to global change might not predict long-term results.

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