Low phosphorus supply constrains plant responses to elevated CO2: A meta-analysis

Mingkai Jiang*, Silvia Caldararu, Haiyang Zhang, Katrin Fleischer, Kristine Y. Crous, Jinyan Yang, Martin G. De Kauwe, David S. Ellsworth, Peter B. Reich, David T. Tissue, Sönke Zaehle, Belinda E. Medlyn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

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Phosphorus (P) is an essential macro-nutrient required for plant metabolism and growth. Low P availability could potentially limit plant responses to elevated carbon dioxide (eCO2), but consensus has yet to be reached on the extent of this limitation. Here, based on data from experiments that manipulated both CO2 and P for young individuals of woody and non-woody species, we present a meta-analysis of P limitation impacts on plant growth, physiological, and morphological response to eCO2. We show that low P availability attenuated plant photosynthetic response to eCO2 by approximately one-quarter, leading to a reduced, but still positive photosynthetic response to eCO2 compared to those under high P availability. Furthermore, low P limited plant aboveground, belowground, and total biomass responses to eCO2, by 14.7%, 14.3%, and 12.4%, respectively, equivalent to an approximate halving of the eCO2 responses observed under high P availability. In comparison, low P availability did not significantly alter the eCO2-induced changes in plant tissue nutrient concentration, suggesting tissue nutrient flexibility is an important mechanism allowing biomass response to eCO2 under low P availability. Low P significantly reduced the eCO2-induced increase in leaf area by 14.3%, mirroring the aboveground biomass response, but low P did not affect the eCO2-induced increase in root length. Woody plants exhibited stronger attenuation effect of low P on aboveground biomass response to eCO2 than non-woody plants, while plants with different mycorrhizal associations showed similar responses to low P and eCO2 interaction. This meta-analysis highlights crucial data gaps in capturing plant responses to eCO2 and low P availability. Field-based experiments with longer-term exposure of both CO2 and P manipulations are critically needed to provide ecosystem-scale understanding. Taken together, our results provide a quantitative baseline to constrain model-based hypotheses of plant responses to eCO2 under P limitation, thereby improving projections of future global change impacts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5856-5873
Number of pages18
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number10
Early online date31 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
S.C. and S.Z. acknowledge funding from the European Research Council (ERC grant agreement no. 647204; QUINCY) and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD, grant no. 57318796). We thank the editor and three anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments that improved the quality of this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd


  • biomass
  • carbon dioxide
  • leaf gas exchange
  • meta-analysis
  • mycorrhizae
  • nutrient concentration
  • plant morphology
  • plant nutrient uptake
  • soil phosphorus


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