By the year 2100, atmospheric CO2 concentration ([CO2]a) could reach 800 ppm, having risen from ~200 ppm since the Neogene, beginning ~24 Myr ago. Changing [CO2]a affects plant carbon–water balance, with implications for growth, drought tolerance and vegetation shifts. The evolution of C4 photosynthesis improved plant hydraulic function under low [CO2]a and preluded the establishment of savannahs, characterized by rapid transitions between open C4-dominated grassland with scattered trees and closed forest. Understanding directional vegetation trends in response to environmental change will require modelling. But models are often parameterized with characteristics observed in plants under current climatic conditions, necessitating experimental quantification of the mechanistic underpinnings of plant acclimation to [CO2]a.
Quirk and colleagues measured growth, photosynthesis and plant–water relations, within wetting–drying cycles, of a C3 tree (Vachellia karroo, an acacia) and a C4 grass (Eragrostis curvula) grown at 200, 400 or 800 ppm [CO2]a. They investigated the mechanistic linkages between trait responses to [CO2]a under moderate soil drying, and photosynthetic characteristics.
Acacia and Eragrostis acclimated differently to [CO2]a, with implications for their respective responses to water limitation and environmental change. The authors’ findings question the carbon-centric focus on factors limiting assimilation with changing [CO2]a, how they are predicted and their role in determining productivity. They go on to emphasize the continuing importance of water-conserving strategies in the assimilation response of savannah plants to rising [CO2]a.