Leaf stable carbon isotope composition reflects transpiration efficiency in Zea mays

Robert J. Twohey, Lucas M. Roberts, Anthony J. Studer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The increasing demand for food production and predicted climate change scenarios highlight the need for improvements in crop sustainability. The efficient use of water will become increasingly important for rain-fed agricultural crops even in fertile regions that have historically received ample precipitation. Improvements in water-use efficiency in Zea mays have been limited, and warrant a renewed effort aided by molecular breeding approaches. Progress has been constrained by the difficulty of measuring water-use in a field environment. The stable carbon isotope composition (δ 13 C) of the leaf has been proposed as an integrated signature of carbon fixation with a link to stomatal conductance. However, additional factors affecting leaf δ 13 C exist, and a limited number of studies have explored this trait in Z. mays. Here we present an extensive characterization of leaf δ 13 C in Z. mays. Significant variation in leaf δ 13 C exists across diverse lines of Z. mays, which we show to be heritable across several environments. Furthermore, we examine temporal and spatial variation in leaf δ 13 C to determine the optimum sampling time to maximize the use of leaf δ 13 C as a trait. Finally, our results demonstrate the relationship between transpiration and leaf δ 13 C in the field and the greenhouse. Decreasing transpiration and soil moisture are associated with decreasing leaf δ 13 C. Taken together these results outline a strategy for using leaf δ 13 C and reveal its usefulness as a measure of transpiration efficiency under well-watered conditions rather than a predictor of performance under drought.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)475-484
Number of pages10
JournalPlant Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2019


  • Zea mays
  • carbon isotopes
  • transpiration efficiency
  • vegetative phase change
  • water-use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Plant Science
  • Cell Biology


Dive into the research topics of 'Leaf stable carbon isotope composition reflects transpiration efficiency in Zea mays'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this