Variation and evolution of C:N ratio among different organs enable plants to adapt to N-limited environments

Jiahui Zhang, Nianpeng He, Congcong Liu, Li Xu, Zhi Chen, Ying Li, Ruomeng Wang, Guirui Yu, Wei Sun, Chunwang Xiao, Han Y.H. Chen, Peter B. Reich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) are the primary elements involved in the growth and development of plants. The C:N ratio is an indicator of nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) and an input parameter for some ecological and ecosystem models. However, knowledge remains limited about the convergent or divergent variation in the C:N ratios among different plant organs (e.g., leaf, branch, trunk, and root) and how evolution and environment affect the coefficient shifts. Using systematic measurements of the leaf–branch–trunk–root of 2,139 species from tropical to cold-temperate forests, we comprehensively evaluated variation in C:N ratio in different organs in different taxa and forest types. The ratios showed convergence in the direction of change but divergence in the rate of change. Plants evolved toward lower C:N ratios in the leaf and branch, with N playing a more important role than C. The C:N ratio of plant organs (except for the leaf) was constrained by phylogeny, but not strongly. Both the change of C:N during evolution and its spatial variation (lower C:N ratio at midlatitudes) help develop the adaptive growth hypothesis. That is, plants with a higher C:N ratio promote NUE under strong N-limited conditions to ensure survival priority, whereas plants with a lower C:N ratio under less N-limited environments benefit growth priority. In nature, larger proportion of species with a high C:N ratio enabled communities to inhabit more N-limited conditions. Our results provide new insights on the evolution and drivers of C:N ratio among different plant organs, as well as provide a quantitative basis to optimize land surface process models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2534-2543
Number of pages10
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank David Ellsworth, Western Sydney University, for helpful comments. This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31988102, 31800368), the Chinese Academy of Sciences Strategic Priority Research Program (XDA23080401), National Key R&D Program of China (2016YFC0500202), and the program of Youth Innovation Research Team Project (LENOM2016Q0005).


  • adaptation
  • carbon
  • ecological stoichiometry
  • evolution
  • forest
  • latitude
  • nitrogen
  • variation

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article

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