Storage of carbon reserves in spruce trees is prioritized over growth in the face of carbon limitation

Jianbei Huang, Almuth Hammerbacher, Jonathan Gershenzon, Nicole M. van Dam, Anna Sala, Nate G. McDowell, Somak Chowdhury, Gerd Gleixner, Susan Trumbore, Henrik Hartmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Climate change is expected to pose a global threat to forest health by intensifying extreme events like drought and insect attacks. Carbon allocation is a fundamental process that determines the adaptive responses of long-lived late-maturing organisms like trees to such stresses. However, our mechanistic understanding of how trees coordinate and set allocation priorities among different sinks (e.g., growth and storage) under severe source limitation remains limited. Using flux measurements, isotopic tracing, targeted metabolomics, and transcriptomics, we investigated how limitation of source supply influences sink activity, particularly growth and carbon storage, and their relative regulation in Norway spruce (Picea abies) clones. During photosynthetic deprivation, absolute rates of respiration, growth, and allocation to storage all decline. When trees approach neutral carbon balance, i.e., daytime net carbon gain equals nighttime carbon loss, genes encoding major enzymes of metabolic pathways remain relatively unaffected. However, under negative carbon balance, photosynthesis and growth are down-regulated while sucrose and starch biosynthesis pathways are up-regulated, indicating that trees prioritize carbon allocation to storage over growth. Moreover, trees under negative carbon balance actively increase the turnover rate of starch, lipids, and amino acids, most likely to support respiration and mitigate stress. Our study provides molecular evidence that trees faced with severe photosynthetic limitation strategically regulate storage allocation and consumption at the expense of growth. Understanding such allocation strategies is crucial for predicting how trees may respond to extreme events involving steep declines in photosynthesis, like severe drought, or defoliation by heat waves, late frost, or insect attack.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2023297118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number33
StatePublished - Aug 17 2021


  • Carbon allocation
  • Carbon starvation
  • Isotopic labeling
  • Nonstructural carbohydrate storage
  • Transcriptional regulation


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