Functional Plant Biology Functional Plant Biology Society
Plant function and evolutionary biology

Evans Review No. 2: The hot and the cold: unravelling the variable response of plant respiration to temperature

Owen K. Atkin A , Dan Bruhn B , Vaughan M. Hurry C and Mark G. Tjoelker D

A Department of Biology (Area 2), The University of York, PO Box 373, York YO10 5YW, UK. Corresponding author. Email:

B Cooperative Research Centre for Green House Accounting, Ecosystem Dynamics Group, Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia.

C Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Plant Physiology, Umeå University, 901 87 Umeå, Sweden.

D Department of Forest Science, Texas A & M University, 2135 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843-2135, USA.

This paper is part of The Evans Review series, named for Dr Lloyd Evans. The series contains reviews that are critical, state-of-the-art evaluations that aim to advance our understanding, rather than being exhaustive compilations of information, and are written by invitation.

Functional Plant Biology 32(2) 87-105
Submitted: 30 September 2003  Accepted: 14 December 2004   Published: 24 February 2005


When predicting the effects of climate change, global carbon circulation models that include a positive feedback effect of climate warming on the carbon cycle often assume that (1) plant respiration increases exponentially with temperature (with a constant Q10) and (2) that there is no acclimation of respiration to long-term changes in temperature. In this review, we show that these two assumptions are incorrect. While Q10 does not respond systematically to elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations, other factors such as temperature, light, and water availability all have the potential to influence the temperature sensitivity of respiratory CO2 efflux. Roots and leaves can also differ in their Q10 values, as can upper and lower canopy leaves. The consequences of such variable Q10 values need to be fully explored in carbon modelling. Here, we consider the extent of variability in the degree of thermal acclimation of respiration, and discuss in detail the biochemical mechanisms underpinning this variability; the response of respiration to long-term changes in temperature is highly dependent on the effect of temperature on plant development, and on interactive effects of temperature and other abiotic factors (e.g. irradiance, drought and nutrient availability). Rather than acclimating to the daily mean temperature, recent studies suggest that other components of the daily temperature regime can be important (e.g. daily minimum and / or night temperature). In some cases, acclimation may simply reflect a passive response to changes in respiratory substrate availability, whereas in others acclimation may be critical in helping plants grow and survive at contrasting temperatures. We also consider the impact of acclimation on the balance between respiration and photosynthesis; although environmental factors such as water availability can alter the balance between these two processes, the available data suggests that temperature-mediated differences in dark leaf respiration are closely linked to concomitant differences in leaf photosynthesis. We conclude by highlighting the need for a greater process-based understanding of thermal acclimation of respiration if we are to successfully predict future ecosystem CO2 fluxes and potential feedbacks on atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Keywords: carbon fluxes, climate change, respiration, temperature.


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