Skip to main content
Review article - Peer-reviewed, 2012

Pulse-labelling trees to study carbon allocation dynamics: a review of methods, current knowledge and future prospects

Epron, Daniel; Bahn, Michael; Derrien, Delphine; Lattanzi, Fernando Alfredo; Pumpanen, Jukka; Gessler, Arthur; Högberg, Peter; Maillard, Pascale; Dannoura, Masako; Gérant, Dominique; Buchmann, Nina


Pulse-labelling of trees with stable or radioactive carbon (C) isotopes offers the unique opportunity to trace the fate of labelled CO2 into the tree and its release to the soil and the atmosphere. Thus, pulse-labelling enables the quantification of C partitioning in forests and the assessment of the role of partitioning in tree growth, resource acquisition and C sequestration. However, this is associated with challenges as regards the choice of a tracer, the methods of tracing labelled C in tree and soil compartments and the quantitative analysis of C dynamics. Based on data from 47 studies, the rate of transfer differs between broadleaved and coniferous species and decreases as temperature and soil water content decrease. Labelled C is rapidly transferred belowground-within a few days or less-and this transfer is slowed down by drought. Half-lives of labelled C in phloem sap (transfer pool) and in mature leaves (source organs) are short, while those of sink organs (growing tissues, seasonal storage) are longer. C-13 measurements in respiratory efflux at high temporal resolution provide the best estimate of the mean residence times of C in respiratory substrate pools, and the best basis for compartmental modelling. Seasonal C dynamics and allocation patterns indicate that sink strength variations are important drivers for C fluxes. We propose a conceptual model for temperate and boreal trees, which considers the use of recently assimilated C versus stored C. We recommend best practices for designing and analysing pulse-labelling experiments, and identify several topics which we consider of prime importance for future research on C allocation in trees: (i) whole-tree C source-sink relations, (ii) C allocation to secondary metabolism, (iii) responses to environmental change, (iv) effects of seasonality versus phenology in and across biomes, and (v) carbon-nitrogen interactions. Substantial progress is expected from emerging technologies, but the largest challenge remains to carry out in situ whole-tree labelling experiments on mature trees to improve our understanding of the environmental and physiological controls on C allocation.


carbon isotope; forest; partitioning; residence time; transfer time

Published in

Tree Physiology
2012, Volume: 32, number: 6, pages: 776-798

    SLU Authors

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Forest Science

    Publication Identifiers


    Permanent link to this page (URI)