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ARS Home » Pacific West Area » Burns, Oregon » Range and Meadow Forage Management Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #356180

Research Project: A Systems Approach to Restoring Invaded Sagebrush Steppe

Location: Range and Meadow Forage Management Research

Title: Photosynthetic regulation in seed heads and flag leaves of sagebrush-steppe bunchgrasses

item Hamerlynck, Erik
item Denton, Elsie
item Davies, Kirk
item Boyd, Chad

Submitted to: Conservation Physiology
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 12/6/2019
Publication Date: 12/23/2019
Citation: Hamerlynck, E.P., Denton, E.M., Davies, K.W., Boyd, C.S. 2019. Photosynthetic regulation in seed heads and flag leaves of sagebrush-steppe bunchgrasses. Conservation Physiology. 7(1):coz112.

Interpretive Summary: Crested wheatgrass is an exotic bunchgrass that is widely used in sagebrush-steppe restoration efforts because it establishes better from seed than native perennial grasses, though just how it is consistently able to produce higher quality seeds than native grasses is not well understood. This study showed that crested wheatgrass seed heads had much higher photosynthetic capacity and efficiency compared to seed heads of native grasses; in fact, crested wheatgrass seed heads were as good as its own leaves at fixing carbon while native grass seed heads were not. This feature likely allows crested wheatgrass to allocate more carbon to developing seeds, resulting in higher quality seeds and better seedling survival. These results could be used to select for lines of native grasses with reproductive photosynthetic features similar to crested wheatgrass, which could improve restoration of native species into degraded sagebrush steppe rangelands.

Technical Abstract: Native sagebrush-steppe bunchgrass populations are threatened by the spread and dominance of exotic invasive annual grasses, in part due to low, episodic seed production. In contrast, the widespread exotic bunchgrass, crested wheatgrass, readily produces viable seed cohorts. The mechanisms underlying these differences are unclear. To address this, we measured seed head specific mass (g m-2) and net photosynthetic assimilation (Anet) as a function of internal [CO2] (A/Ci curves) in pre- and post-anthesis seed heads and flag leaves of crested wheatgrass and four native bunchgrasses to determine if differences in allocation and photosynthetic characteristics of seed heads was consistent with differential reproductive success. Crested wheatgrass seed heads had 2-fold greater specific mass compared to the native grasses, concurrent with greater CO2-saturated photosynthesis (Amax), mesophyll carboxylation efficiency (CE), and higher intrinsic water-use efficiency (WUEi; Anet/stomatal conductance (gs)), but with similar relative stomatal limitations to photosynthesis (RSL). Post-anthesis seed head Amax, CE, RSL and gs decreased in native grasses, while crested wheatgrass RSL decreased and CE increased dramatically, likely due to tighter coordination between seed head structural changes with stomatal and biochemical dynamics. Our results suggest native sagebrush-steppe bunchgrasses have greater stomatal and structural constraints to reproductive photosynthesis, while the exotic grass has evolved seed heads functionally similar to leaves. This study shows elucidating reproduction-related ecophysiological mechanisms provide understanding of plant attributes that underlie restoration success and could help guide the development of native plant materials with functional attributes needed to overcome demographic bottlenecks that limit their restoration into degraded sagebrush-steppe.