Revisiting carbon isotope discrimination in C3 plants shows respiration rules when photosynthesis is low


Stable isotopes are commonly used to study the diffusion of CO2 within photosynthetic plant tissues. The standard method used to interpret the observed preference for the lighter carbon isotope in C3 photosynthesis involves the model of Farquhar et al., which relates carbon isotope discrimination to physical and biochemical processes within the leaf. However, under many conditions the model returns unreasonable results for mesophyll conductance to CO2 diffusion (gm), especially when rates of photosynthesis are low. Here, we re-derive the carbon isotope discrimination model using modified assumptions related to the isotope effect of mitochondrial respiration. In particular, we treat the carbon pool associated with respiration as separate from the pool of primary assimilates. We experimentally test the model by comparing gm values measured with different CO2 source gases varying in their isotopic composition, and show that our new model returns matching gm values that are much more reasonable than those obtained with the previous model. We use our results to discuss CO2 diffusion properties within the mesophyll.

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Fig. 1: Schematic representation of the model assumptions and its derivation.
Fig. 2: Mesophyll conductance (gm) values estimated with different isotope discrimination models.
Fig. 3: Separation of \({{\varDelta }}_{{\mathrm{obs}}}^{13}\) into its individual components.
Fig. 4: Key model parameters measured from Ci and PAR responses.
Fig. 5: Mesophyll conductance (gm) values estimated with different discrimination models.
Fig. 6: Impact of the value of f on the estimated value of gm.
Fig. 7: Comparison of apparent gm derived assuming a single-resistance versus a two-resistance discrimination model.

Data availability

All generated and analysed data that support the findings of this study are included in the published article and its Supplementary Information.


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We thank N. Ubierna and G. Tcherkez for critical feedback on the manuscript. This work was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis.

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F.A.B. conceived the study. F.A.B. and G.D.F. carried out the modelling. F.A.B. and M.H.-P. undertook the experimental work on a system set up by H.S.-W. and M.H.-P. Data were analysed by M.H.-P. and F.A.B. F.A.B. wrote the manuscript with contributions from all authors.

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Correspondence to Florian A. Busch.

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Peer review information Nature Plants thanks Jaume Flexas, Thomas Sharkey and Danny Tholen for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Fig. 1, Sections 1–6 and references.

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Busch, F.A., Holloway-Phillips, M., Stuart-Williams, H. et al. Revisiting carbon isotope discrimination in C3 plants shows respiration rules when photosynthesis is low. Nat. Plants 6, 245–258 (2020).

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