Lungs of the Planet. Teacher Notes and Answers

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1 Lungs of the Planet with Dr. Michael Heithaus Teacher Notes and Answers BACKGROUND In this video, Mike Heithaus travels to Costa Rica to study photosynthesis with the help of Steven Oberbauer, also of Florida International University. Students analyze the data gathered by the scientists in the video to determine whether the moniker lungs of the planet holds true for tropical rain forest ecosystems. The two scientists use equipment to measure photosynthesis occurring in leaves found high in the rain forest canopy and also in leaves on plants growing on the forest floor. The machine the scientists use to measure photosynthesis is a Licor 6400 infrared gas analyzer (IRGA). The chamber that they clamp onto the leaves measures the change in CO 2, and with a known plant area, it can calculate the photosynthesis per unit area of leaf. The Licor 6400 lets the user control the environmental conditions in the chamber, such as CO 2 concentrations, leaf temperature, light conditions, and relative humidity all factors that affect leaf photosynthesis. Though they once covered around 14 percent of Earth s surface, because of human activities, tropical rain forests now cover less than six percent of Earth s surface. These ecosystems, which are found along the equator, contain a large diversity of plant and animal species. In fact, tropical rain forests contain a greater diversity of tree species than any other biome. Rain forests are highly productive ecosystems. INVESTIGATION 1. The equations are the reverse of one another. Photosynthesis uses light energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into a six-carbon simple sugar, and also produces oxygen. Cellular respiration uses these sugars and oxygen to release chemical energy that cells can use, and also produces carbon dioxide and water. 2. The rate of photosynthesis must be higher because photosynthesis makes building blocks (six-carbon simple sugars) for growth. Cellular respiration is also required for growth, but it must break down the simple sugars to supply the energy. i

2 Lungs of the Planet Teacher Notes and Answers continued 3. a. More light should increase the rate of photosynthesis (up to the point at which they are receiving all they can manage); b. More water should increase the rate of photosynthesis (up to the point at which they are receiving all they can manage); c. More carbon dioxide should increase the rate of photosynthesis (up to the point at which they are receiving all they can manage); d. Higher temperatures should reduce the rate of photosynthesis, since higher temperatures will increase the rate that water evaporates from leaf surfaces. 4. Photosynthesis rates should be higher during the day because there is plenty of light, and then rates should drop at night when there is less light. Because plants still need to respire at night in order to release energy for other life processes, the relative rate of cellular respiration should be higher at night than during the day. 5. Table 1. Photosynthesis rates of canopy and understory leaves under high light and low light conditions. Values are average µmol CO 2 per m 2 per second for ten leaves from a single tree. High light Low light Individual Canopy Understory Canopy Understory Average ii

3 Lungs of the Planet Teacher Notes and Answers continued No, at high light, canopy leaves are better than understory leaves, but understory leaves do better than canopy leaves at low light. At their best, however, understory leaves cannot attain photosynthesis rates of canopy leaves Note. The reason for this is a physiological trade-off. For example, leaves that are adapted to take advantage of high light conditions generally have a lower chlorophyll content per unit weight compared to understory leaves, so they cannot operate as effectively at lower light levels. Likewise, leaves that are built to operate efficiently under low light conditions cannot take advantage of high light levels to the same extent as leaves that are adapted to high light levels. 9. Because there is a 1:1 relationship between the use of carbon dioxide and the production of oxygen, we can assume that the amount of oxygen being used or produced is equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide being produced or used. iii

4 Lungs of the Planet Teacher Notes and Answers continued At night, there is cellular respiration and no photosynthesis because there is no light. The positive values show that carbon dioxide is given off by the leaf (and oxygen is consumed). During the day, photosynthesis is greater than cellular respiration because the values are negative (in other words, carbon dioxide is taken into the leaf during photosynthesis). 12. Answers will vary. Students might write that the forest has a daily rhythm of carbon dioxide moving into plants and then out that is somewhat like breathing in and out ,600 mol CO 2 /km 2 ; This value suggests that the forest is consuming carbon dioxide and producing oxygen because when carbon dioxide is being removed there has to be a greater occurrence of photosynthesis than cellular respiration, and oxygen is being produced. iv

5 Lungs of the Planet Teacher Notes and Answers continued 14. Table 4. Rates of net primary productivity (NPP) in different biomes worldwide. Negative numbers reflect carbon dioxide being consumed by plants during photosynthesis. Biome Tropical forests Temperate forests NPP ( g of C/m 2 per yr) Area covered worldwide (x 1 x 10 6 km) Total NPP (Pg of C per yr a ) Boreal forests Mediterranean shrublands Tropical savannas and grasslands Temperate grasslands Deserts Arctic tundra Crops Total n/a n/a a 1 Petagram (Pg) = 1,000,000,000,000,000 g Percentage of global terrestrial NPP v

6 Lungs of the Planet Teacher Notes and Answers continued There is probably more oxygen, on average, being released from the oceans because there is more carbon being taken up (1.7 Gt/year) there than on land (1.4 Gt/Yr). CONCLUSION 17. No! If terrestrial plants are only removing about 8 percent of the CO 2 in the atmosphere each year, that would mean that they are contributing a tiny fraction to the oxygen in the atmosphere each year because CO 2 production equals O 2 production and there is a much larger amount of O 2 in the atmosphere. Note. Plants and algae have been producing oxygen for millions and millions of years, and because of this the annual contribution of plants to the overall amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is actually quite small. 18. Rain forests cannot really be called the lungs of the planet. Because plants on land contribute less than half of the world s oxygen, rain forests probably only contribute around percent of global oxygen at most each year. In addition, this yearly contribution of oxygen is only a tiny fraction of the amount of oxygen already in the atmosphere. vi

7 Lungs of the Planet Teacher Notes and Answers continued 19. Because, according to the data, the forests are removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This removal would help reduce the build up of CO 2 in the atmosphere. 20. It would go up. Not only are there fewer trees, on average, to remove carbon dioxide, but the respiration by decomposers would add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. vii

8 Lungs of the Planet with Dr. Michael Heithaus Problem Why do people call rain forests the lungs of the planet? Usually it is because people think that the rain forests produce most of the oxygen we breathe. But do they? To answer this question, we have to be familiar with two processes that occur within the cells of plants: photosynthesis and cellular respiration. These processes can be described by the following chemical equations: Photosynthesis: 6CO 2 + 6H 2 O + Light Energy C 6 H 12 O 6 + 6O 2 Cellular respiration: C 6 H 12 O 6 + 6O 2 6CO 2 + 6H 2 O + Chemical Energy (ATP) One aspect of photosynthesis that is not reflected in the first equation above is that plants often face a trade-off between gathering carbon dioxide and losing water. To gather carbon dioxide, they open small pores in the leaf called stomata. When they open these pores, water is usually lost to the environment. The hotter and drier the air is, the faster water is lost. If plants lose too much water, then they may dry out and die. INVESTIGATION 1. Based on the equations above, describe how the processes of photosynthesis and cellular respiration relate to each other. 2. If a plant is growing by incorporating carbon into its body, is the rate of photosynthesis or the rate of cellular respiration higher? Explain your answer. 1

9 3. Using the photosynthesis equation, predict how the rate of photosynthesis might change with variation in the following parameters (assuming that the plant is not receiving the maximum amount it can use): a. The amount of light hitting a leaf b. The availability of water c. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere d. The air temperature when water is a limiting factor 4. Based on your answers above, describe how you would expect the relative rates of photosynthesis and cellular respiration to vary in rain forests from day to night. 2

10 Steve has collected a lot of data on photosynthetic rates of tropical rain forest plants. Data from one canopy plant and one understory plant are presented in Table 1 below. Each value is the average photosynthetic rate of ten leaves from one individual plant. All measurements were taken during the day. Ten trees were tested in high light (sunny day) and ten were tested in low light (cloudy day) for both the canopy and understory. 5. Data Analysis Complete Table 1 by calculating the average rates of photosynthesis. Table 1. Photosynthesis rates of canopy and understory leaves under high light and low light conditions. Values are average µmol CO 2 per m 2 per second for ten leaves from an individual tree. High light Low light Individual Canopy Understory Canopy Understory Average 3

11 6. Data Analysis Draw a bar graph of the average photosynthetic rates of canopy and understory leaves under high and low light conditions. 7. Data Analysis Are leaves from one area of the rain forest more efficient at photosynthesis under all conditions? Explain. Rain forest plants can produce a lot of oxygen during photosynthesis, but they also need to consume oxygen during cellular respiration. So how much oxygen is being produced by rain forests? To address this question, Steve measures the total amount of carbon dioxide that is produced and consumed by the forest. Net ecosystem exchange (NEE) measures the net exchange of carbon dioxide between the ecosystem and the atmosphere. 8. How many molecules of oxygen are produced for every molecule of carbon dioxide that is consumed during photosynthesis? 9. How would you use this relationship to investigate the amount of oxygen being produced if we can only measure changes in the amount of carbon dioxide moving in and out of the plants in the forest? 4

12 Table 2 below shows the daily pattern of NEE that Steve has found in the rain forest in Costa Rica. The values provided are the averages for each time period based on measurements over many days. Positive values indicate that, overall, carbon dioxide is being produced and oxygen is being used (that is, cellular respiration is greater than photosynthesis). Negative values mean that, overall, carbon dioxide is being used and oxygen is being produced (that is, photosynthesis is greater than cellular respiration). Table 2. Net ecosystem exchange (NEE) in a tropical forest in Costa Rica Time of Day NEE (µmol CO 2 per m 2 per second) 10. Data Analysis Draw a line graph of changes in NEE throughout the day. 5

13 11. Data Analysis Describe how the relative rates of photosynthesis and cellular respiration change through the day. Use the data to describe how you came to this conclusion. 12. Data Analysis Could the pattern you see in the figure you drew for question 10 explain why some people call rain forests the lungs of the planet? Table 3 below uses the data in Table 2 to estimate the total amount of carbon dioxide (in mols) produced or consumed during two-hour time blocks for a kilometer of rain forest. Table 3. Carbon dioxide production (positive numbers) or consumption (negative numbers) during two-hour time blocks in a tropical forest in Costa Rica Time of Day Carbon dioxide production or consumption (mol CO 2 /km 2 ) 6

14 13. Data Analysis Use the data in the Table 3 to calculate the net production or consumption of carbon dioxide during the course of a day in a square kilometer of rain forest. (Hint: add all the numbers up.) Use this answer to argue whether the forest is a producer or consumer of oxygen. Are rain forests the lungs of the planet because they produce most of our oxygen? This isn t a simple question, so we will look at two measures that will help us find an answer. The first measure we ll consider is the net primary productivity (NPP) of different biomes on land. Net primary productivity is a measure of how much carbon is incorporated into plants during the year, so it tells us how much more photosynthesis than cellular respiration occurs in plants within a biome. In other words, NPP is total photosynthesis minus total cellular respiration for a biome. The higher the NPP, the more oxygen a biome produces. NPP can be calculated by estimating the total growth of plants within a biome. Once we see how much rainforests contribute to NPP on land, we will investigate the relative contributions of producers in the oceans and those on land. 14. Data Analysis Complete Table 4 by calculating the proportion of total global terrestrial NPP that occurs in each biome. 7

15 Table 4. Rates of net primary productivity (NPP) in different biomes worldwide. Negative numbers reflect carbon dioxide being consumed by plants during photosynthesis. Biome Tropical forests Temperate forests NPP ( g of C/m 2 per yr) Area covered worldwide (x 1 x 10 6 km) Total NPP (Pg of C per yr a ) Boreal forests Mediterranean shrublands Tropical savannas and grasslands Temperate grasslands Deserts Arctic tundra Crops Percentage of global terrestrial NPP Total n/a n/a a 1 Petagram (Pg) = 1,000,000,000,000,000 g 15. Data Analysis Draw a bar graph showing the percent of terrestrial NPP of each land biome. 8

16 Plants on land are not the only organisms that photosynthesize. Phytoplankton in the oceans could also be a big part of global oxygen production. To compare the amount of oxygen that might be produced by different ecosystems, we want to be able to measure not just NPP, but the total amount of photosynthesis and the total amount of cellular respiration within the ecosystem. This value of total respiration and decomposition accounts for all organisms including animals. Gross primary productivity is measured by the total amount of carbon (from carbon dioxide) that is taken up by photosynthesis. (A negative number means carbon is being taken out of the atmosphere.) If we subtract the total amount of carbon that is released into the atmosphere from decomposition and cellular respiration, we can figure out how much carbon is being taken up in oceans and on land. Table 5 below presents data on the amount of photosynthesis, cellular respiration, and decomposition that occurs on land and in the oceans. Remember, the more carbon dioxide that is taken up, the more oxygen that is produced. Table 5 shows total global carbon uptake and release typical in the 1990s. The abbreviation Gt stands for gigatonne, which is equivalent to one billion metric tons (tonnes). One major source of carbon that is not represented in this table is release from the burning of fossil fuels (approximately 6.3 Gt/year). Table 5. Worldwide primary productivity, cellular respiration, and carbon uptake in the 1990s. Negative numbers indicate that carbon dioxide is being taken up and positive numbers indicate that carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere. Gross Primary Production (Gt C/yr) Total respiration and decomposition (Gt C/yr) Terrestrial Ocean Net production of carbon (Gt C/yr) 16. Data Analysis Based on the data in Table 5, compare the amount of oxygen that is being released (accounting for the amount used) by producers in the oceans versus producers on land. 9

17 CONCLUSION We are almost ready to deal with the lungs of the planet question. In addition to the data you have analyzed, consider the following information: CO 2 uptake is about equal to O 2 production. The concentration of CO 2 in the atmosphere is approximately 390 ppm (0.039% of the atmosphere) and the concentration of O 2 in the atmosphere is approximately 210,000 ppm (21% of the atmosphere). Scientists estimate that the values of terrestrial plant uptake of CO 2 shown in Table 5 accounts for about 8% of the CO 2 in the atmosphere. 17. Based on the bulleted information above, are terrestrial plants contributing a relatively large amount of oxygen each year to the current oxygen concentration of the atmosphere? 18. Using the graph of terrestrial NPP, carbon uptake values in Table 5, and your answer to question 17, would you call the rain forests the lungs of the planet? Explain your answer. 19. Extension Climate change is largely driven by increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which absorbs and radiates energy as heat back to Earth. So, an increase in CO 2 in the atmosphere will warm Earth s surface. Based on what you have learned in this activity, why is it important to protect tropical forests? HMH Environmental Science 10

18 20. Extension What would happen to the amount of CO 2 in the atmosphere if trees are chopped down and burned (or are blown down in a hurricane) and decompose? Why? (Hint: Recall that the process of decomposition consumes oxygen and releases carbon dioxide.) HMH Environmental Science 11

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