The Energetic and Carbon Economic Origins of Leaf Thermoregulation

The Science

The research described in this paper uses a variety of global datasets to support theory suggesting that plants maximize carbon gain, in part, via myriad traits that regulate temperature near the optimum for photosynthesis.

The Impact

This paper provides the first large advance in the understanding of leaf thermoregulation, and is thus likely to be tested widely.


Leaf thermoregulation has been rarely documented, and its control is unknown. However, leaf temperature is one of the most critical parameters regulating photosynthesis in Earth system models. Improving its understanding has widespread fundamental and applied (e.g., modeling) value. The scientists tested a novel carbon- and energy-based theory using multiple global datasets of leaf temperature and photosynthesis, along with myriad leaf traits. The theory was supported by the data, and demonstrated that leaf thermoregulation does act to maximize photosynthesis. This research has broad implications for fundamental biology and for applied modeling of ecosystems.

Principal Investigator(s)

Nate McDowell
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


Funding was provided by the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)–Tropics project of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, within the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science; by Los Alamos National Laboratory LDRD, by the Natonal Science Foundation, and bythe Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.


Michaletz, S.T., Weiser, M.D., McDowell, N.G., Zhou, J., Kaspari, M., Helliker, B.R., and Enquist, B.J. “The energetic and carbon economic origins of leaf thermoregulation.” Nature Plants 2, 16129 (2016). [DOI:10.1038/nplants.2016.129].