Tracing plant-environment interactions from organismal to planetary scales using stable isotopes: A mini review

Gavin McNico, Zhongjie Yu, Z. Carter Berry, Nathan Emery, Fiona M. Soper, Wendy H. Yang

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Natural isotope variation forms a mosaic of isotopically distinct pools across the biosphere and flows between pools integrate plant ecology with global biogeochemical cycling. Carbon, nitrogen, and water isotopic ratios (among others) can be measured in plant tissues, at root and foliar interfaces, and in adjacent atmospheric, water, and soil environments. Natural abundance isotopes provide ecological insight to complement and enhance biogeochemical research, such as understanding the physiological conditions during photosynthetic assimilation (e.g. water stress) or the contribution of unusual plant water or nutrient sources (e.g. fog, foliar deposition). While foundational concepts and methods have endured through four decades of research, technological improvements that enable measurement at fine spatiotemporal scales, of multiple isotopes, and of isotopomers, are advancing the field of stable isotope ecology. For example, isotope studies now benefit from the maturation of field-portable infrared spectroscopy, which allows the exploration of plant-environment sensitivity at physiological timescales. Isotope ecology is also benefiting from, and contributing to, new understanding of the plant-soil-atmosphere system, such as improving the representation of soil carbon pools and turnover in land surface models. At larger Earth-system scales, a maturing global coverage of isotope data and new data from site networks offer exciting synthesis opportunities to merge the insights of single-or multi-isotope analysis with ecosystem and remote sensing data in a data-driven modeling framework, to create geospatial isotope products essential for studies of global environmental change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)301-316
Number of pages16
JournalEmerging topics in life sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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