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Oecologia (2009) 161:1524

DOI 10.1007/s00442-009-1364-3

C O N C E P T S , R E V I E WS A N D S Y N T H E S E S

The importance of nutritional regulation of plant water Xux

Michael D. Cramer Heidi-Jayne Hawkins
G. Anthony Verboom

Received: 14 July 2008 / Accepted: 23 April 2009 / Published online: 16 May 2009
Springer-Verlag 2009

Abstract Transpiration is generally considered a wasteful

but unavoidable consequence of photosynthesis, occurring
because water is lost when stomata open for CO2 uptake.
Additionally, transpiration has been ascribed the functions
of cooling leaves, driving root to shoot xylem transport and
mass Xow of nutrients through the soil to the rhizosphere.
As a consequence of the link between nutrient mass Xow
and transpiration, nutrient availability, particularly that of
NO3, partially regulates plant water Xux. Nutrient regulation of transpiration may function through the concerted
regulation of: (1) root hydraulic conductance through control of aquaporins by NO3, (2) shoot stomatal conductance
(gs) through NO production, and (3) pH and phytohormone
regulation of gs. These mechanisms result in biphasic
responses of water Xux to NO3 availability. The consequent trade-oV between water and nutrient Xux has important implications for understanding plant distributions, for
production of water use-eYcient crops and for understanding the consequences of global-change-linked CO2 suppression of transpiration for plant nutrient acquisition.
Keywords Agriculture Elevated carbon dioxide
Leaf size Nocturnal transpiration Water use eYciency

Communicated by Frederick C. Meinzer.

M. D. Cramer (&) H.-J. Hawkins G. A. Verboom
Department of Botany, University of Cape Town,
Private Bag X1, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa
e-mail: michael.cramer@uct.ac.za
M. D. Cramer
Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences,
School of Plant Biology, The University of Western Australia,
35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia

The rate of global transpiration has recently been estimated
to be 0.52 mm day1, accounting for 41% of terrestrial
evapotranspiration (Lawrence et al. 2007). When combined
with estimates of global terrestrial gross primary productivity (GPP; 120 Pg C year1; Schlesinger 1997) and net primary production (NPP; 66 Pg C year1; Haberl et al. 2007),
this indicates a global terrestrial water use eYciency
(WUE; mmol CO2 mol1 H2O) of 7.9 for GPP and 3.4 for
NPP. Thus, transpiration consumes 297 mol H2O per mol
CO2 acquired by global NPP. On the basis of typical C
concentrations in crops (45%; Epstein and Bloom 2005)
and the likely maximum C concentration in wood (55%;
Lamlom and Savidge 2003), this equates to between 200
(crop) and 245 (wood) l H2O kg1 biomass produced globally. Since water availability is a major limitation on terrestrial plant production and a key determinant in the
structuring of vegetation worldwide (e.g. Sankaran et al.
2005), an understanding of the physiological factors that
determine this WUE is extremely important. For example,
agriculture consumes 8090% of water available for human
consumption worldwide (Hamdy et al. 2003), leading to
signiWcant eVorts to increase the eYciency of water use in
agriculture, partially through manipulation of plant WUE
(Condon et al. 2004).
Currently, our understanding of plant water use is
largely informed by the notion that transpirational water
loss is to some extent a micrometeorologically unavoidable evil (Kramer and Boyer 1995) that occurs because
evolution has not succeeded in producing a membrane that
is CO2-permeable but water-impermeable (Cowan 1977)
and water is lost when stomata open for CO2 uptake (von
Caemmerer and Baker 2007). As such, it has also been
described as the dilemma of land plants (Raschke 1976).



Consequently photosynthesis incurs a water cost and, over

a period of time (e.g. daily or weekly), plants are thought to
optimise their WUE by adjusting the rate of photosynthesis
(A) relative to that of transpiration (E) (Farquhar et al.
2002; Chaves et al. 2004). This is achieved through tight
stomatal control of water loss in most terrestrial plants, as
well as other traits that reduce water consumption (e.g. C4
and CAM photosynthesis, hairy leaves, sunken stomata,
etc.). This control of water Xux is essential for limiting variation in plant water potential () with changes in soil
moisture and evaporative demand, thus, preserving the
integrity of the soilplant hydraulic continuum (Sperry
et al. 2002).
Since photosynthesis and transpiration are both physiologically complex, WUE lacks a simple optimum and
plants display a broad range of WUE. For example, the
minimum and maximum quartiles for photosynthesis per
stomatal conductance (A/gs, as a proxy for WUE) across
430 C3 species are 0.022 and 0.084 mmol mol1 (based on
the data presented by Wright et al. 2004). Various factors
determine the low WUE exhibited by some plants. Firstly,
A is strongly determined by photosynthate sink demand
(Wardlaw 1990; Ho 1992; Foyer et al. 1995; Paul and
Foyer 2001; Paul et al. 2001; McCormick et al. 2006, 2008)
due to the eVect of the latter on the activity of photosynthesis-related enzymes and expression of associated gene transcripts (Sheen 1990, 1994; Koch 1996; Pego et al. 2000;
Paul and Foyer 2001; Rolland et al. 2002). Thus, biochemical regulation of A provides a mechanism for the rapid
adjustment of WUE. Secondly, mesophyll resistance to
CO2 movement to the site of carboxylation is an important
and variable component of the overall conductance of a
leaf to CO2 (Warren and Adams 2006; Flexas et al. 2008;
Warren 2008). Both mesophyll resistance and biochemical
regulation can result in some mismatch between gs and
A. For example, across a range of C3 species A/gs was
smaller when gs exceeded 0.4 mol m2 s1 (Hetherington
and Woodward 2003), indicating a variable inXuence of gs
on photosynthesis. Finally, contrary to its interpretation
merely as an unavoidable consequence of CO2 uptake, transpiration may fulWl important physiological functions in its
own right.
The textbook functions of transpiration are to cool
leaves, in some situations, and to power the transport of solutes via the xylem from the root to the shoot (Lambers et al.
2008). While both of these functions are undoubtedly
important, neither fully accounts for the observed transpirational behaviour of plants. For example, a leaf cooling
function is not consistent with mid-day stomatal closure in
many plants (e.g. Roessler and Monson 1985; Jones 1992)
and does not explain the widely observed occurrence of
signiWcant nighttime transpiration (Howard and Donovan
2007). Also, measured rates of transpiration considerably


Oecologia (2009) 161:1524

exceed those required for root to shoot solute transport in

hydroponically grown Zea mays (Tanner and Beevers
1990) and Helianthus annuus (Tanner and Beevers 2001).
Here, we explore a third but frequently neglected function of transpiration, that of powering mass Xow in the soil,
where it is important in delivering nutrients to the rhizosphere (Barber 1962, 1995; Tinker and Nye 2000). Interception of nutrients as roots grow through the soil depends
on root density (Kage 1997), but generally accounts for a
small proportion of nutrient acquisition, the balance arriving at the root surface as a consequence of mass Xow or
diVusion (Clarkson 1981). This mass-Xow component of
soil nutrient transport, Wrst propounded by Woodward
(1699), is widely recognised and is a standard inclusion in
models of soil nutrient Xuxes (e.g. Nye and Marriott 1969;
HoZand et al. 1990; Rengel 1993; Greenwood and
Karpinets 1997). Transpiration-driven mass Xow may result
in substantial delivery of nutrients to the root surface; for
example, Zea mays, growing in a fertile loam, potentially
accumulated 79% N, 5% P, 18% K, 73% Ca, 88% Mg and
95% S by mass Xow, the remainder being taken up through
diVusion and interception by the roots (Barber 1995). Mass
Xow and diVusion of nutrients into the rhizosphere is
followed by uptake into the root tissue and transport across
a plasmalemma by an appropriate transport system for a
given nutrient (e.g. the H+ symporters responsible for NO3
uptake; Miller and Cramer 2004). However, for many nutrients mobility in the soil limits the uptake by the root, rather
than the activity of the plasmalemma transport systems
(Clarkson 1981; Kage 1997). The eVectiveness of mass
Xow depends on factors that inXuence transpiration (e.g.
temperature; Lambers et al. 2008) as well as nutrient type,
due to its dependence on nutrient concentration, solubility
and mobility in the soil (Barber 1995). This results in considerable variation in the extent to which species depend on
mass Xow for delivering particular nutrients, this being
additionally determined by edaphic and climatic factors
(Rengel 1993). Unlike the situation with diVusion to the
root, which is partially driven by root uptake, mass Xow is
less discriminate and all soluble components in the soil
solution will be moved into the rhizosphere. This accounts
for the accumulation of Ca at the surface of roots (Barber
and Ozanne 1970) and the consequent formation of rootassociated carbonates in some plants (e.g. root casts;
Cramer and Hawkins 2009).
If transpiration-driven mass Xow is an important nutrient
acquisition strategy, then soil nutrient availability may at
least partially regulate transpiration. The reported eVects of
nutrition on transpiration are variable (e.g. Radin and
Ackerson 1981; Chapin et al. 1988; Ciompi et al. 1996; Cechin
and Fumis 2004). This variability is probably the consequence of whole plant water Xux being determined by the
combination of both root and shoot hydraulic conductivities

Oecologia (2009) 161:1524

and also variability of nutrient forms (e.g. NO3 vs. NH4+)

and availability between experiments. In a direct test of the
prediction that soil nutrient availability may regulate transpiration-driven mass Xow, the C3 grass Ehrharta calycina
showed a 60% increase in transpiration when forced to
acquire nutrients through mass Xow, and accumulated several nutrients (e.g. Na, Ca) in accord with the relatively
indiscriminate nature of mass Xow compared to diVusion
(Cramer et al. 2008). The observation of increased transpiration in response to nutrient limitation is in accord with the
common observation that WUE is reduced under nutrient
limitation as a consequence of changes in gs and density
and, consequently, overall leaf conductance (reviewed by
Raven et al. 2004). The possibility that nutrition regulates
transpiration may underpin the trade-oV between WUE and
nutrient use eYciency (e.g. Field et al. 1983; Fredeen et al.
1991; Patterson et al. 1997; Wright et al. 2003). In particular, a regulatory role for N may result in WUE being
traded-oV against N use eYciency (NUE; e.g. Patterson
et al. 1997). Thus, the hypothesis that nutrient availability
partially regulates transpiration is consistent with an extensive body of literature, but further direct tests of the hypothesis are still required.

Mechanisms for the trade-oV between water

and nutrient use eYciencies
The correlation between photosynthesis and leaf [N] provides a mechanism for the trade-oV between WUE and
NUE. The bulk of leaf N is associated with photosynthetic
enzymes, particularly rubisco (Lambers et al. 2008). This
results in a strong positive correlation between A and leaf
[N] (e.g. Shulze et al. 1994; Wright et al. 2003), despite the
fact that photosynthesis is a highly regulated process, under
the control of multiple metabolic regulatory elements
(e.g. Stitt and Krapp 1999), not only leaf [N] and [CO2].
With higher leaf [N], the increased availability of photosynthetic protein is thought to increase the draw-down of
internal CO2, resulting from higher A at a given gs (Patterson
et al. 1997; Wright et al. 2003), and consequently higher
WUE. We suggest, however, that the requirement for transpiration-driven mass Xow of nutrients provides a powerful
additional mechanistic reason for the trade-oV of WUE and
Nutrient regulation of water Xux through plants may be
through N-Xux-linked signalling mechanisms (e.g. Wilkinson
et al. 1998, 2007; Clarkson et al. 2000; Desikan et al. 2002;
Gloser et al. 2007) that operate in both roots and shoots.
Root hydraulic conductance varies on a diurnal basis
(Parsons and Kramer 1974; Carvajal et al. 1996) due to
changes in the expression of water channels (i.e. aquaporins). These aquaporins are plasma membrane intrinsic


proteins that facilitate water Xux by increasing root hydraulic

conductivity, and are strongly expressed in the roots of several species, particularly in the exodermis, endodermis and
vascular tissue (Maurel et al. 2008). Aquaporins are gated
through phosphorylation by Ca-dependent kinases (Maurel
2007) providing a potential mechanism for nutrient-mediated regulation of water Xux (Chaumont et al. 2005).
Although the molecular and cellular mechanisms involved
in regulation of aquaporins are still not fully understood,
there are strong indications that aquaporin activity modiWes
water Xux in roots, in response to nutrients. For example,
deprivation of N, P, or S results in a signiWcant inhibition of
water transport associated with aquaporin functioning in
whole roots or individual root cells within a few days
(reviewed by Maurel et al. 2008). Conversely, increasing
rhizosphere [NO3] above deWciency has been shown to
rapidly increase aquaporin-mediated root hydraulic conductivity (Carvajal et al. 1996; Clarkson et al. 2000; Gloser
et al. 2007; Gorska et al. 2008). Since tungstate inhibited
nitrate reductase (NR), its failure to inhibit aquaporinmediated hydraulic conductivity suggests that NO3 itself
(Fig. 1), rather than its reduction/assimilation products, is
responsible for regulating aquaporin expression (Gorska
et al. 2008). These authors speculated that the functional
signiWcance of NO3-induced increases of water Xux is to
facilitate mass Xow of NO3 to the roots when NO3 was
available. This may be particularly important when soil N
availability is limited, but not deWcient.
[NO3] has a biphasic inXuence on gs (Wilkinson et al.
2007), increasing from deWciency to a maximum and
decreasing with further increases in [NO3]. Increasing
[NO3] above suYciency rapidly (hours) elicits concentration-dependent stomatal closure (Wilkinson et al. 2007),
possibly mediated by changes in xylem pH, abscisic acid
(ABA) signalling (Wilkinson et al. 1998) and NO signalling (Desikan et al. 2002; Neill et al. 2008). This signalling
system becomes ineVective with prolonged N deWciency
resulting in decreased water Xux (Radin and Parker 1979),
probably in response to N starvation.
The induction of root water Xux by NO3 may at Wrst
seem inconsistent with the biphasic inXuence on gs and
observed transpirational responses of plants to nutrient deWciency. Transpirational responses to nutrients, however,
represent the result of complex and overlapping regulatory
mechanisms that allow plants to modulate water Xux in
response to diverse nutritional and other environmental
challenges. The site of NO3 reduction and subsequent
assimilation of NH4+ in the plant varies between root and
the shoot tissues, depending on species, developmental
stage and nutritional environment (Wallace 1986). Above a
minimum threshold, determined by the capacity of NR in
the root (Andrews 1986), the proportion of NO3 that is
reduced in the shoot increases with [NO3] (Oaks 1986;



Oecologia (2009) 161:1524
















Root cap

N flux
Water flux
Root hair
NO3- transporter
NH4+ transporter
Positive regulation

Fig. 1 Proposed mechanism for the biphasic control of water Xux by

NO3 and the lack of similar control by NH4+ of water Xux. Uptake of
NH4+ is shown to occur closer to the root tip than that of NO3 (Bloom
et al. 2003) which enters with water in the region in which root hairs
occur (Javot and Christophe 2002). NH4+ uptake and its assimilation
products do not alter water Xux directly, possibly resulting in aspects
of the ammoniacal syndrome. In contrast, NO3 stimulates (positive
feedback) expression/activity of root aquaporins. NO3 uptake in excess of the capacity of root nitrate reductase (NR) for reduction is
transported to the shoot where NO is produced by NR during its reduction to NO2 (Desikan et al. 2002; Neill et al. 2008). NO is indicated
to induce stomatal closure. NO2 is reduced to NH4+ by nitrite reductase and NH4+ is assimilated into amino acids through the activity of
glutamine synthetase/glutamate-2-oxoglutarate amino-transferase.
Details of associated pH changes, phytohormone Xuxes (e.g. Wilkinson
et al. 2007), energetic Xuxes (e.g. ATP or NAD(P)H) or C Xuxes have
not been indicated

Wallace 1986). Below this threshold, Xuxes of NO3 into

the root are likely to result in increased root hydraulic conductivity, such as that demonstrated by Gorska et al.
(2008), and consequently sustained transpiration. However,
NO3 Xuxes in excess of the root NR capacity will result
in NO3 being transported to the shoot where its conversion to NO by NR induces stomatal closure (Desikan et al.
2002; Neill et al. 2008) and reduced water Xux. Transpiration and NR activity do co-vary (Rufty et al. 1987), consistent with NO3 regulation of NR activity and NO
production from NO3. We suggest that this provides a


novel mechanism for the biphasic regulation of water Xux

in intact plants by NO3 concentration that was observed
by Wilkinson et al. (2007). Changes in loading of NO3
into the xylem may also result in alteration of xylem pH
(Mengel et al. 1994) with additional consequences for stomatal regulation through enhanced ABA transport to guard
cells (Wilkinson et al. 2007), accounting for the synergistic
eVects of xylem NO3 and ABA on gs observed by Jia and
Davies (2007). The mechanism proposed here would facilitate transpiration-driven mass Xow when NO3 supply is
limited and decrease mass Xow when NO3 is suYcient to
trigger stomatal closure (Fig. 1). Importantly, an N-mediated signalling mechanism would enable plants to measure
inorganic N Xux and increase transpiration rates to drive
mass Xow when soil N is limited (but not deWcient).
Unlike NO3, NH4+ nutrition does not alter root hydraulic conductance or increase the expression of aquaporins in
the root (Guo et al. 2007a). In most species, NH4+ taken up
by roots is assimilated into amino acids in the roots
(reviewed by Miller and Cramer 2004), and NH4+ does not
appear to elicit the closing response of stomata. Plants supplied with NH4+ generally have lower WUE than those supplied with NO3 (Raven et al. 2004; Guo et al. 2007a, b)
and the symptoms of NH4+ toxicity include growth inhibition, wilting and other indications of water stress (Cramer
and Lewis 1993). These changes, dubbed the ammoniacal
syndrome (Chaillou and Lamaze 2001), have previously
been ascribed to cation/anion imbalances (reviewed by
Miller and Cramer 2004). This water stress, however,
probably additionally results from the lack of co-ordinated
regulation of root hydraulic conductance and gs. High
concentrations of NH4+ associated with agriculture are
uncommon in natural ecosystems and plants may thus lack
the mechanisms to respond to these conditions. The biphasic sensitivity of transpiration-driven water Xow to NO3
also provides a mechanism for plants to sense the eYcacy
of mass Xow to the root, since NO3 is readily mobilised by
mass Xow in many soils; in contrast, NH4+ cations bind to
soil more readily and are less likely to be mobilised by
mass Xow. The mechanism proposed here (Fig. 1) provides
a novel explanation for the observed disparate eVects of
NO3 or NH4+ nutrition on plant water relations.
The foregoing discussion neglects some of the complexity of soilroot interactions. NO3 and NH4+ availabilities
in soil can vary by an order of magnitude over the course of
a day and over a the space of a few centimetres (Jackson
and Bloom 1990). Altering the hydraulic properties of a
small part of the root system in response to local conditions
would enable eVective control of the utilisation of water by
that portion of the root. For example, as a root depletes
NO3 in the soil zone, the consequently reduced hydraulic
conductance would potentially allow diversion of water to
other portions of the soil where NO3 is less limiting. Root

Oecologia (2009) 161:1524

responses to NO3 and NH4+ also diVer strongly. Roots of

many plants proliferate rapidly in patches of NO3, but not
in patches of NH4+ (reviewed by Miller and Cramer 2004).
This diVerential sensitivity of root proliferation to NO3
and NH4+ has been argued to occur because roots have
evolved to use NO3 rather than NH4+ as a signal molecule
owing to their diVerential mobilities in the soil (Zhang and
Forde 2000). Consistent with the lower mobility of NH4+,
plants develop thinner and longer roots when NH4+ is the
primary N source (Bloom et al. 2003). In both rice and
maize, NH4+ absorption was higher at the root apex,
whereas NO3 absorption was greatest in the root hair zone
(Colmer and Bloom 1998), where hydraulic conductivity
associated with aquaporins is concentrated (Javot and
Christophe 2002; Hachez et al. 2006). Thus, as the root
grows through the soil the tip may Wrst take up more of the
relatively immobile NH4+ than NO3 and subsequently, as
the root continues to grow, the region of the root around the
root hairs takes up NO3 transported into the rhizosphere
by mass Xow (Fig. 1).
The mass Xow of nutrients other than N depends on the
Xux of water, the soil concentration of the nutrient and its
mobility (Barber 1995). Thus, N regulation of water Xux
provides a mechanism for N Xux to regulate the mass Xow
of other nutrients to the rhizosphere (e.g. Cramer et al.
2008, 2009). It is, however, possible that nutrients other
than N could also play a role in controlling water Xux. At
the root level, for example, relief from P deWciency rapidly
increased root hydraulic conductivity (Radin and Eidenbock
1984; Carvajal et al. 1996) probably due to increased
aquaporin expression (Clarkson et al. 2000). Increased P
supply has also been shown to increase WUE in several
species (reviewed by Raven et al. 2004), but this may be
largely due to the relief of photosynthesis from P limitation
(e.g. Jacob and Lawlor 1991), rather than any P-induced
decrease in transpiration. While there may be a role for P in
regulating water Xux, its eVectiveness in this role may be
limited by its low mobility in many high cation exchange
capacity (CEC) soils (Barber 1995; Kramer and Boyer
1995). However, mass Xow of P can be substantial in
low-CEC soils, raising the possibility that mass Xow could
contribute to P supply to roots in such soils (Cramer and
Hawkins 2009), although this requires further investigation.

Adaptations that promote water loss

Supporting the idea that transpiration is a design feature of
plants, rather than a design Xaw, plants have several attributes that enhance water loss. These attributes ensure water
Xux into the leaf tissue to meet the demands for water
imposed by transpiration, whether as a consequence of the
micrometeorology associated with CO2 Xux or the other


functions of transpiration. An example of such an attribute

is the extent and density of venation in leaves, which dictates the hydraulic conductivity of leaf tissue (Brodribb
et al. 2007). This considerably exceeds that which is necessary to meet the minimal water requirements of tissue
expansion and photosynthetic water splitting. In addition,
aquaporins in the mesophyll cells of several species function to promote water Xux (KaldenhoV and Fischer 2006;
Sakurai et al. 2008). In Juglans regia, light-mediated activation of leaf aquaporins resulted in a rapid (<1 h) and
spectacular 400% increase in hydraulic conductivity which
was independent of its eVect on gs (Cochard et al. 2007).
This light-induced increase in hydraulic conductivity is at
odds with the notion that water loss is necessitated only by
leaf micrometeorology.
Further, the widespread lack of features that might
reduce water loss, such as leaf hair and sunken stomata,
may be construed as mechanisms that promote water loss,
although these features generally inXuence both water and
CO2 Xux. However, changes in leaf attributes inXuencing
gas exchange do not necessarily inXuence water loss and
CO2 gain equally. For instance, stomatal crypts have a
greater impact on water conservation than on CO2 Xux
(Roth-Nebelsick 2007). Although reduced or highly dissected leaves are usually interpreted as a mechanism to
ensure close coupling of leaf and air temperatures, they
also promote water loss (Parkhurst and Loucks 1972;
Roth-Nebelsick 2001) through decreased boundary layer
resistance (Nobel 1999). This may explain why small or
dissected leaves are common in nutrient-impoverished
Mediterranean-type ecosystems in which nutrients are most
available for acquisition in the cold and wet winter period.
For example, Nicotra et al. (2008) found that leaf dissection
in Pelargonium species native to such an ecosystem (South
African fynbos) did not correlate with climatic variables,
and concluded that dissected leaves, high A, and relatively
low WUE had evolved as a strategy to optimize water
delivery and C gain during short-lived periods of high soil
moisture. We suggest that this optimization of water
delivery during periods of high soil moisture serves to drive
mass Xow of nutrients to the roots, a process that may be
particularly important in low-CEC soils.
The extent to which plants close their stomata at night
has been considered a vexing question (Darwin 1898) for
a long time. Nighttime water loss does account for a substantial proportion of seasonal water loss in some systems
(e.g. >10% in paper birch; Daley and Phillips 2006).
Dawson et al. (2007) list four potential functions for nighttime water loss, suggesting that it: facilitates CO2 uptake
early in the day because stomata are already open; enhances
root to shoot nutrient translocation; maintains O2 supply to
woody tissues at night; occurs because cuticles, particularly
of older leaves, are leaky. Recent evidence indicates,



however, that nighttime water loss is considerably faster

than cuticular leakage and is regulated much like daytime
water loss (Caird et al. 2007). The possible role of nighttime transpiration in nutrient acquisition has been raised by
several authors. In some species nighttime water loss is
responsive to the availability of nutrients (e.g. Scholz et al.
2007), while in others no response has been found (e.g.
Howard and Donovan 2007). Decreased day and night gs of
Helianthus anomalus in response to N and P fertilizers
were interpreted as a consequence of lower plant 
imposed by greater water consumption by bigger, fertilized
plants ( = 0.49 MPa) compared to control plants
( = 0.42 MPa; Ludwig et al. 2006). However, these s
are not very negative and the diVerences between them are
small. Alternatively, these data are consistent with the proposed N regulation of water Xux (Fig. 1), both during the
day and night. As implied by Howard and Donovan (2007),
the diversity of responsiveness of nighttime water Xux to
nutrients may be the consequence of the diVerences in the
control of water loss between species, environmental conditions and variation in concentration and forms of nutrients
available to the plants. We think that a nutritional role for
nighttime water loss is likely, but further research is
required to fully resolve the responsiveness of nighttime
water Xux to nutrients.

Increased atmospheric [CO2] increases WUE

Elevated CO2 has been shown to reduce aboveground plant
tissue [N] by 14% (both C3 and C4), with C3 plants
responding more strongly (16%) than C4 plants (7%) or C3
legumes (7%) (Cotrufo et al. 1998). Although increased
total non-structural carbohydrates (TNC) may provide a
partial explanation for this [N] reduction through a dilution
eVect (Krner 2000), the eVect remains even after correcting for increased TNC (Schppi and Krner 1997; Krner
2000; Onoda et al. 2007). The decline of tissue [N] with
elevated CO2 could be ascribed to a reduced N requirement
for rubisco formation, combined with sugar-sensing of
increased photosynthate availability (Stitt and Krapp 1999).
This is consistent with the smaller sensitivity of C4 plant
tissue [N] to elevated CO2 due to smaller changes in C4
sugar concentrations, but does not explain why legume [N]
was not reduced to the same extent as that in other C3
plants. An alternative explanation is that mass-Xow-driven
nutrient acquisition was constrained by CO2-induced stomatal closure. In free-air CO2 enrichment experiments, the
average decrease in gs in response to elevated CO2 (ca.
567 mol mol1) was 22% (including C3 and C4 plants),
this change being associated with a reduction in stomatal
aperture rather than stomatal density (Ainsworth and
Rogers 2007). Reduced mass Xow has previously been


Oecologia (2009) 161:1524

invoked as an explanation for limited plant N acquisition in

response to elevated CO2 (Conroy and Hocking 1993). In
Populus deltoids reduced N uptake was ascribed to reduced
gs in response to both high CO2 and humidity (McDonald
et al. 2002). Since the rate of mass Xow of individual nutrients depends on soil chemistry rather than plant demand,
reduced mass Xow may be expected to limit the uptake of
several nutrients simultaneously. A general decline in the
concentrations of several nutrients (P, K, Ca, S, Mg, Fe, Zn,
Mn and Cu) with elevated CO2 has been reported from a
meta-analysis based on 19 herbaceous and 11 woody species (Loladze 2002). The extent of this general decrease in
plant nutrient concentrations may be dictated by N regulation of plant water Xux (Fig. 1), consistent with the reported
NO-induced stomatal closure triggered by elevated CO2
(Kolla and Raghavendra 2007). Suppression of transpiration-driven mass Xow may contribute to the unresponsiveness of many natural ecosystems to increased atmospheric
[CO2] noted by Krner (2006).

WUE in agriculture
Crop water use is determined by a large variety of factors
including soil physical characteristics (e.g. clay content),
crop density, genotype, root interception of water and the
proportion of exposed soil surface (Gregory 2004), providing diverse opportunities for manipulating crop water use.
The responsiveness of crop water use eYciency to N application rates results partially from N-induced crop intensiWcation occurring because of greater biomass per land area
(Asseng et al. 2001). However, manipulation of leaf-level
WUE has been proposed as a mechanism to improve overall crop water use. Some success in manipulating leaf WUE
has been reported for wheat, although this was related to
early vigour of the crop during the cool, wet part of the
growing season (Condon et al. 2004). Considering that leaf
WUE increases with nutrition (Raven et al. 2004), it is
likely that increased N application rates over the past
decades (reviewed by Miller and Cramer 2004) have
already increased the WUE of crops through decreased
dependence on mass Xow. The trade-oV of water Xux for
nutrient availability, however, means that the viability of
breeding or genetic modiWcation to reduce crop transpiration (e.g. Condon et al. 2004), depends on nutrient availability, since reducing water consumption by the plants
may limit productivity, especially in nutrient-limited soils.
There are relatively few reports that directly compare the
respective importance of mass Xow, diVusion and root
interception for nutrient acquisition (e.g. Barber 1962;
Strebel and Duynisveld 1989; Kramer and Boyer 1995;
Kage 1997; Lambers et al. 2008). However, the role of
mass Xow in nutrient delivery varies with many factors

Oecologia (2009) 161:1524

including soil nutrient concentrations, soil CEC, water

availability, atmospheric vapour pressure deWcit and plant
genotype. This lack of information is a glaring oversight in
eVorts directed towards maximising crop WUE.

Although water availability has long been recognised as
an important determinant of nutrient diVusive mobility in
the soil, the potential importance of transpiration-driven
mass Xow strengthens the interaction between water and
nutrient availability, providing an additional mechanism
for the trade-oV of water Xux and nutrient acquisition.
This raises the possibility that some plants are designed
not to conserve water, but rather to maximise the Xux of
water when it is abundant. This has far-reaching implications for the interpretation of the distributions of plants
and their adaptations, in relation to environmental gradients. Furthermore, the notion that nutrients, particularly
N, partially regulate transpiration could inform crop management and the understanding of issues such as the
mechanism through which N fertilization, particularly
using NO3 rather than NH4+, reduces salinity toxicity
(e.g. Hawkins and Lewis 1993).
Acknowledgments Funding was from the University of Cape Town
URC awards, National Research Foundation and Protea Producers of
South Africa. We are grateful for useful comments from the anonymous reviewers.

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