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Universal scaling of respiratory metabolism, size and nitrogen in plants

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 15 June 2006


The scaling of respiratory metabolism to body size in animals is considered to be a fundamental law of nature1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11, and there is substantial evidence for an approximate -power relation. Studies suggest that plant respiratory metabolism also scales as the -power of mass12,13,14, and that higher plant and animal scaling follow similar rules owing to the predominance of fractal-like transport networks and associated allometric scaling8,9,10,11,12,13,14. Here, however, using data obtained from about 500 laboratory and field-grown plants from 43 species and four experiments, we show that whole-plant respiration rate scales approximately isometrically (scaling exponent ≈ 1) with total plant mass in individual experiments and has no common relation across all data. Moreover, consistent with theories about biochemically based physiological scaling15,16,17,18, isometric scaling of whole-plant respiration rate to total nitrogen content is observed within and across all data sets, with a single relation common to all data. This isometric scaling is unaffected by growth conditions including variation in light, nitrogen availability, temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentration, and is similar within or among species or functional groups. These findings suggest that plants and animals follow different metabolic scaling relations, driven by distinct mechanisms.

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Figure 1: Scaling of respiration, N and plant mass for plants.


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We thank the Wilderness Research Foundation and the National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research Program for major support of the research reported herein and the Gordon Conference ‘Metabolic Basis of Ecology’ for inspiring us in this endeavour. Author Contributions The idea behind this paper was developed by P.B.R. and J.-L.M. while attending the Gordon Conference Metabolic Basis of Ecology. P.B.R. did the statistical analyses and wrote the paper with considerable assistance from M.G.T. All authors interpreted the results, commented on the manuscript and were involved in the design and implementation of one or more of the individual studies that collectively make up this paper (P.B.R., four studies; M.G.T., three; J.-L.M., two; J.O., one).

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Correspondence to Peter B. Reich.

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Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Methods

This file includes the details of the environmental conditions, plant species, and ages for each of the four studies making up the manuscript. It includes all measurement and handling details for the four studies. This file covers data analyses and how adjusted values were calculated and also contains additional references. (DOC 41 kb)

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Reich, P., Tjoelker, M., Machado, JL. et al. Universal scaling of respiratory metabolism, size and nitrogen in plants. Nature 439, 457–461 (2006).

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