Catchment properties and the photosynthetic trait composition of freshwater plant communities

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Science  15 Nov 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6467, pp. 878-881
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay5945

Change in plants as bicarbonate rises

Freshwater plants can be broadly divided into two major categories according to their photosynthetic traits: Some use carbon dioxide as their carbon source, whereas others use bicarbonate. Iversen et al. found that the relative concentrations of these two inorganic carbon forms in water determine the functional composition of plant communities across freshwater ecosystems (see the Perspective by Marcé and Obrador). They created global maps revealing that community composition is structured by catchment geology and not climate (in contrast to the terrestrial realm, where the trait composition is structured by temperature and rainfall). Anthropogenic influences from land-use change are causing large-scale increases in bicarbonate concentrations in freshwater catchments and are thus leading to wholesale changes in the composition of their aquatic plant communities.

Science, this issue p. 878; see also p. 805


Unlike in land plants, photosynthesis in many aquatic plants relies on bicarbonate in addition to carbon dioxide (CO2) to compensate for the low diffusivity and potential depletion of CO2 in water. Concentrations of bicarbonate and CO2 vary greatly with catchment geology. In this study, we investigate whether there is a link between these concentrations and the frequency of freshwater plants possessing the bicarbonate use trait. We show, globally, that the frequency of plant species with this trait increases with bicarbonate concentration. Regionally, however, the frequency of bicarbonate use is reduced at sites where the CO2 concentration is substantially above the air equilibrium, consistent with this trait being an adaptation to carbon limitation. Future anthropogenic changes of bicarbonate and CO2 concentrations may alter the species compositions of freshwater plant communities.

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