Journal Article

Plant growth and respiration re-visited: maintenance respiration defined – it is an emergent property of, not a separate process within, the system – and why the respiration : photosynthesis ratio is conservative

John H. M. Thornley

in Annals of Botany

Published on behalf of The Annals of Botany Company

Volume 108, issue 7, pages 1365-1380
Published in print November 2011 | ISSN: 0305-7364
Published online September 2011 | e-ISSN: 1095-8290 | DOI:

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  • Ecology and Conservation
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Plant Sciences and Forestry


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Background and Aims

Plant growth and respiration still has unresolved issues, examined here using a model. The aims of this work are to compare the model's predictions with McCree's observation-based respiration equation which led to the ‘growth respiration/maintenance respiration paradigm’ (GMRP) – this is required to give the model credibility; to clarify the nature of maintenance respiration (MR) using a model which does not represent MR explicitly; and to examine algebraic and numerical predictions for the respiration:photosynthesis ratio.


A two-state variable growth model is constructed, with structure and substrate, applicable on plant to ecosystem scales. Four processes are represented: photosynthesis, growth with growth respiration (GR), senescence giving a flux towards litter, and a recycling of some of this flux. There are four significant parameters: growth efficiency, rate constants for substrate utilization and structure senescence, and fraction of structure returned to the substrate pool.

Key Results

The model can simulate McCree's data on respiration, providing an alternative interpretation to the GMRP. The model's parameters are related to parameters used in this paradigm. MR is defined and calculated in terms of the model's parameters in two ways: first during exponential growth at zero growth rate; and secondly at equilibrium. The approaches concur. The equilibrium respiration:photosynthesis ratio has the value of 0·4, depending only on growth efficiency and recycling fraction.


McCree's equation is an approximation that the model can describe; it is mistaken to interpret his second coefficient as a maintenance requirement. An MR rate is defined and extracted algebraically from the model. MR as a specific process is not required and may be replaced with an approach from which an MR rate emerges. The model suggests that the respiration:photosynthesis ratio is conservative because it depends on two parameters only whose values are likely to be similar across ecosystems.

Keywords: Respiration; growth; maintenance; model; senescence; recycling; photosynthesis; gross production; net production; respiration:photosynthesis ratio

Journal Article.  9900 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Ecology and Conservation ; Evolutionary Biology ; Plant Sciences and Forestry

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