Plants cover around 25% of the surface of the Earth and have been central to life on land for over 400 million years. Today, atmospheric CO2 is at a level not seen in over 800,000 years and continuing to rise at an unprecedented pace. This change in atmospheric chemistry may lead to alterations in plant leaf chemistry, with immediate impacts on growth, interactions with other species and palatability.

Although broad-scale relationships between plant chemistry and environmental conditions have been studied, e.g. changes in the carbon:nitrogen ratio of leaves with variation in carbon dioxide levels; the details of leaf chemistry–climate interactions have been generally neglected. We are aware of only two studies (covering locations in North America and South Africa) and our own unpublished pilot data that demonstrate non-trivial variation in leaf lipids and macromolecules over relatively minor geographic and climatic ranges. Therefore, it is not currently possible to predict how plants may alter these aspects of leaf chemistry in the near-term future or understand how they altered them in the past as a response to rapid environmental upheavals. However, it is likely that such changes would impact plant productivity, interactions with other species and palatability for consumers (both human and animal), with significant implications for ecosystem stability and food security. Over 25% of plant biomass produced each year is used for human consumption, so investigating potential changes to the quality of this resource under predicted future climate change scenarios, by studying present and past leaf chemistry, would be a key component on addressing the challenge of ensuring global access to secure and resilient food systems. 


Lead Academics at Lead University

  • Fiona Gill – School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds
  • Karen Bacon – School of Geography, University of Leeds

Lead Academics at other universities

  • Charles Wellman – Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield
  • Kirsty Penkman – Department of Chemistry, University of York

Other members of staff associated with this project

  • Megan Klaar – School of Geography, University of Leeds
  • Duncan Cameron – Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield
  • Jill Edmondson – Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield 
  • Matt Pickering – Environment Department, University of York