Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Earth can sustain more terrestrial plant growth than previously thought, analysis shows

Date:
August 26, 2014
Source:
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Summary:
A new analysis suggests the planet can produce much more land-plant biomass -- the total material in leaves, stems, roots, fruits, grains and other terrestrial plant parts -- than previously thought. The study recalculates the theoretical limit of terrestrial plant productivity, and finds that it is much higher than many current estimates allow.

Scientists have historically underestimated the potential productivity of the earth's land plants, researchers report in a new study.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen

A new analysis suggests the planet can produce much more land-plant biomass -- the total material in leaves, stems, roots, fruits, grains and other terrestrial plant parts -- than previously thought.

Related Articles


The study, reported in Environmental Science and Technology, recalculates the theoretical limit of terrestrial plant productivity, and finds that it is much higher than many current estimates allow.

"When you try to estimate something over the whole planet, you have to make some simplifying assumptions," said University of Illinois plant biology professor Evan DeLucia, who led the new analysis. "And most previous research assumes that the maximum productivity you could get out of a landscape is what the natural ecosystem would have produced. But it turns out that in nature very few plants have evolved to maximize their growth rates."

DeLucia directs the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment at the U. of I. He also is an affiliate of the Energy Biosciences Institute, which funded the research through the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois.

Estimates derived from satellite images of vegetation and modeling suggest that about 54 gigatons of carbon is converted into terrestrial plant biomass each year, the researchers report.

"This value has remained stable for the past several decades, leading to the conclusion that it represents a planetary boundary -- an upper limit on global biomass production," the researchers wrote.

But these assumptions don't take into consideration human efforts to boost plant productivity through genetic manipulation, plant breeding and land management, DeLucia said. Such efforts have already yielded some extremely productive plants.

For example, in Illinois a hybrid grass, Miscanthus x giganteus, without fertilizer or irrigation produced 10 to 16 tons of above-ground biomass per acre, more than double the productivity of native prairie vegetation or corn. And genetically modified no-till corn is more than five times as productive -- in terms of total biomass generated per acre -- as restored prairie in Wisconsin.

Some non-native species also outcompete native species; this is what makes many of them invasive, DeLucia said. In Iceland, for example, an introduced species, the nootka lupine, produces four times as much biomass as the native boreal dwarf birch species it displaces. And in India bamboo plantations produce about 40 percent more biomass than dry, deciduous tropical forests.

Some of these plants would not be desirable additions to native or managed ecosystems, DeLucia said, but they represent the untapped potential productivity of plants in general.

"We're saying this is what's possible," he said.

The team used a model of light-use efficiency and the theoretical maximum efficiency with which plant canopies convert solar radiation to biomass to estimate the theoretical limit of net primary production (NPP) on a global scale. This newly calculated limit was "roughly two orders of magnitude higher than the productivity of most current managed or natural ecosystems," the authors wrote.

"We're not saying that this is even approachable, but the theory tells us that what is possible on the planet is much, much higher than what current estimates are," DeLucia said.

Taking into account global water limitations reduced this theoretical limit by more than 20 percent in all parts of the terrestrial landscape except the tropics, DeLucia said. "But even that water-limited NPP is many times higher than we see in our current agricultural systems."

DeLucia cautions that scientists and agronomists have a long way to go to boost plant productivity beyond current limits, and the new analysis does not suggest that shortages of food or other plant-based resources will cease to be a problem.

"I don't want to be the guy that says science is going to save the planet and we shouldn't worry about the environmental consequences of agriculture, we shouldn't worry about runaway population growth," he said. "All I'm saying is that we're underestimating the productive capacity of plants in managed ecosystems."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Evan H. DeLucia, Nuria Gomez-Casanovas, Jonathan A. Greenberg, Tara W. Hudiburg, Ilsa B. Kantola, Stephen P. Long, Adam D. Miller, Donald R. Ort, William J. Parton. The Theoretical Limit to Plant Productivity. Environmental Science & Technology, 2014; 48 (16): 9471 DOI: 10.1021/es502348e

Cite This Page:

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Earth can sustain more terrestrial plant growth than previously thought, analysis shows." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 August 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140826100855.htm>.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2014, August 26). Earth can sustain more terrestrial plant growth than previously thought, analysis shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140826100855.htm
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Earth can sustain more terrestrial plant growth than previously thought, analysis shows." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140826100855.htm (accessed December 21, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Plants & Animals News

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Researchers Test Colombian Village With High Alzheimer's Rates

Researchers Test Colombian Village With High Alzheimer's Rates

AFP (Dec. 19, 2014) In Yarumal, a village in N. Colombia, Alzheimer's has ravaged a disproportionately large number of families. A genetic "curse" that may pave the way for research on how to treat the disease that claims a new victim every four seconds. Duration: 02:42 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Monarch Butterflies Descend Upon Mexican Forest During Annual Migration

Monarch Butterflies Descend Upon Mexican Forest During Annual Migration

Reuters - Light News Video Online (Dec. 19, 2014) Millions of monarch butterflies begin to descend onto Mexico as part of their annual migration south. Rough Cut (no reporter narration) Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
The Best Protein-Filled Foods to Energize You for the New Year

The Best Protein-Filled Foods to Energize You for the New Year

Buzz60 (Dec. 19, 2014) The new year is coming and nothing will energize you more for 2015 than protein-filled foods. Fitness and nutrition expert John Basedow (@JohnBasedow) gives his favorite high protein foods that will help you build muscle, lose fat and have endless energy. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Birds Might Be Better Meteorologists Than Us

Birds Might Be Better Meteorologists Than Us

Newsy (Dec. 19, 2014) A new study suggests a certain type of bird was able to sense a tornado outbreak that moved through the U.S. a day before it hit. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins