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Biochemical link between plant volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions and CO2 metabolism - from sub-molecular to ecosystem scales (ERC Project)



  • Fasbender Lukas, Yáñez-Serrano Ana Maria, Jürgen Kreuzwieser, David Dubbert, Werner Christiane (2018). A novel approach combining PTR-TOF-MS, 13CO2 laser spectroscopy and 13C-metabolite labelling to trace real-time carbon allocation into biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) and respiratory carbon dioxide (CO2). PLOS One,13: e0204398; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0204398
  • Yáñez-Serrano A. M., L. Fasbender, J. Kreuzwieser, D. Dubbert, S. Haberstroh, R. Lobo-do-Vale, M. C. Caldeira, C. Werner (2018). Volatile diterpene emission by two Mediterranean Cistaceae shrubs. Scientific Reports 8:6855, DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-25056-w

  • Haberstroh Simon, Jürgen Kreuzwieser, Raquel Lobo-do-Vale, Maria C. Caldeira, Maren Dubbert, Christiane Werner (2018). Terpenoid emissions of two Mediterranean woody species in response to drought stress. Frontiers in Plant Science 9:1071. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2018.01071


Plant metabolic processes exert a large influence on global climate and air quality through the emission of the greenhouse gas CO2 and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Despite the enormous importance, processes controlling plant carbon allocation into primary and secondary metabolism, such as respiratory CO2 emission and VOC synthesis, remain unclear. 


The overall goal is the development of a novel technological and theoretical basis to couple investigation of CO2 fluxes and VOC emissions, establishing a mechanistic linkage between primary and secondary carbon metabolism. VOCO2 will evaluate carbon investment into VOCs, respiratory CO2 emission and the associated isotope effects among species with different plant functional traits, bridging scales from sub-molecular to the whole-plant and ecosystem processes in an interdisciplinary approach. This new approach uses stable isotope fractionation of central metabolites (glucose, pyruvate) to trace carbon partitioning at metabolic branching points. A combination novel technology (δ13CO2 laser spectroscopy, high sensitivity PTR-TOF-MS and isotope NMR spectroscopy) will allow an assessment of carbon partitioning, bridging scales from sub-molecular to whole-plant and ecosystem processes. Based on position-specific 13C-labelling we will quantify real-time sub-molecular carbon investment into VOCs and CO2 at the leaf, plant and whole ecosystem scale, aiming at a mechanistic descriptions of the underlying biochemical pathways coupling anabolic and catabolic processes, particularly the link between secondary compound synthesis and CO2 emission in the light. This approach will permit the development of a novel mechanistic leaf model and its integration into a state-of-the-art ecosystem flux model.


At larger scales, if successful, VOCO2 will open new frontiers for assessing biogenic emissions of greenhouse gases at the ecosystem scale in a first ecosystem positional labelling experiment in the Biosphere 2 enclosure (Arizona, US). Jointly with the novel process-based ecosystem model, VOCO2 will open new frontiers for assessing biogenic emissions of greenhouse gases at the ecosystem scale. This will deliver important information for global change related aspects, as these greenhouse gases can impact atmospheric chemistry, e.g. through aerosol formation,  and enhance global warming.


VOCO2 Draft


This campaign is centered on my ERC and coordinated together with the new director of the Biosphere tropical rainforest Laura Meredith (University of Arizona, Tucson).

We have now successfully demonstrated the application of cutting-edge technology (δ13CO2 laser spectroscopy, high sensitivity PTR-TOF-MS and quantitative isotopic NMR spectroscopy) to characterize real-time carbon allocation into VOCs and CO2 using plant position-specific 13C-pyruvate labeling (labelled at the C1 or C2-carbon position) at the branch scale (Fasbender et al. 2018) and, more recently using entire plants.  The final stage of the ERC grant we will conduct the world-wide first canopy positional labelling in the unique facilities of the tropical rainforest in the Biosphere 2, Arizona, the world’s largest controlled growth facility: the Biosphere 2 Tropical Rainforest. The B2 TRF is the ideal location for this project because whole-ecosystem fluxes can be measured within the enclosed system, the environment is controlled, and the canopy can be accessed, which enables real-time monitoring of ecosystem and branch-level fluxes. This whole ecosystem labelling experiment is a unique opportunity to assess ecosystem processes – from the atmosphere, biosphere, soil and hydrology. Our methodological approach enables novel insights into all these different ecosystem components. Moreover, the biosphere is the world-wide sole system, where full ecosystem manipulation experiments are possible.

Photo 1 The Biosphere 2 Tropical Rainforest provides a unique opportunity to holistically evaluate mechanisms and interactions driving ecosystem-scale responses to stressors such as drought (Photo Laura Meredith)

An unprecedented 4-month labelling experiment will be conducted by 1) simulating an ecosystem drought and recovery and 2) bringing in experts and equipment to enable simultaneous measurements of pools and fluxes at the atmosphere, vegetation (phyllosphere, stems), rhizosphere, microbiome and deep water soil processes.


The B2-WALD champagne will be ground-breaking in:

  • Tracing pools and fluxes at all levels throughout the ecosystems, disentangling ecosystem processes, interactions and feedbacks to an important climate change driver (drought) from the atmosphere, biosphere (including phyllosphere, rizosphere) and hydrology
  • Closing carbon and water budget at an ecosystem scales (in a unique closed facility)
  • Partitioning carbon allocation from the molecular to the ecosystems scale
  • Integrating metabolomics, genomics, volatilomics into ecosystem fluxes approaches in a truly interdisciplinary manner
  • deconvolution of the role of deep water reserves, quantifying the role of hydraulic lift by deep rooted trees to ecosystem water budgets by groundwater labelling


The Rainforest campaign will produce massive amounts of diverse, but integrated (Bonnie Hurwitz, NSF EarthCube proposal), data to paint an exceptional picture of the movement of carbon and water through an ecosystem before, during, and after drought, as a function of diverse biological and abiotic drivers. The stable isotope label applied to ecosystem can be studied in the years to come, asking how long carbon will remain stabilized in the soil for example.

Organization and Management

The campaign is co-led by Christiane Werner (Full Professor, University of Freiburg) and Laura Meredith (B2 Rainforest Science Director and Assistant Professor, SNRE, UA), with leadership and organization also by Nemiah Ladd (ERC-Postdoc, University of Freiburg). 



This will be a large-scale, international research campaign, lead by the ERC-team based at the UA Biosphere 2 that will bring in external contributions including personnel, equipment, and research capabilities.


The number of partners currently committed to the campaign, in addition to Biosphere 2 team members (6-8), is approximately 50 participants (MS Students to Professors) from 20 research groups and 13 institutions located both US (3 US universities including UA/B2) and EU (10 EU from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Scotland).