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The oxygen-18 (18O) content of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important indicator of CO2 uptake on land. It has generally been assumed that during photosynthesis, oxygen in CO2 reaches isotopic equilibrium with oxygen in 18O-enriched water in leaves. We show, however, large differences in the activity of carbonic anhydrase (which catalyzes CO2 hydration and 18O exchange in leaves) among major plant groups that cause variations in the extent of 18O equilibrium (θeq). A clear distinction in θeq between C3 trees and shrubs, and C4 grasses makes atmospheric C18OO a potentially sensitive indicator to changes in C3 and C4 productivity. We estimate a global mean θeq value of ∼0.8, which reasonably reconciles inconsistencies between 18O budgets of atmospheric O2 (Dole effect) and CO2.
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