Global photosynthetic capacity is optimized to the environment

Nicholas G. Smith, Trevor F. Keenan, I. Colin Prentice, Han Wang, Ian J. Wright, Ülo Niinemets, Kristine Y. Crous, Tomas F. Domingues, Rossella Guerrieri, F. Yoko Ishida, Jens Kattge, Eric L. Kruger, Vincent Maire, Alistair Rogers, Shawn P. Serbin, Lasse Tarvainen, Henrique F. Togashi, Philip A. Townsend, Meng Wang, Lasantha K. WeerasingheShuang Xi Zhou

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review

102 Scopus citations


Earth system models (ESMs) use photosynthetic capacity, indexed by the maximum Rubisco carboxylation rate (V cmax ), to simulate carbon assimilation and typically rely on empirical estimates, including an assumed dependence on leaf nitrogen determined from soil fertility. In contrast, new theory, based on biochemical coordination and co-optimization of carboxylation and water costs for photosynthesis, suggests that optimal V cmax can be predicted from climate alone, irrespective of soil fertility. Here, we develop this theory and find it captures 64% of observed variability in a global, field-measured V cmax dataset for C 3 plants. Soil fertility indices explained substantially less variation (32%). These results indicate that environmentally regulated biophysical constraints and light availability are the first-order drivers of global photosynthetic capacity. Through acclimation and adaptation, plants efficiently utilize resources at the leaf level, thus maximizing potential resource use for growth and reproduction. Our theory offers a robust strategy for dynamically predicting photosynthetic capacity in ESMs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)506-517
Number of pages12
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2019


  • Carbon cycle
  • Carboxylation
  • Jmax
  • V
  • coordination
  • ecophysiology
  • electron transport
  • light availability
  • nitrogen availability
  • temperature


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