Reviews and syntheses: Carbon use efficiency from organisms to ecosystems – definitions, theories, and empirical evidence
The cycling of carbon (C) between the Earth surface and the atmosphere is controlled by biological and abiotic processes that regulate C storage in biogeochemical compartments and release to the atmosphere. This partitioning is quantified using various forms of C-use efficiency (CUE) – the ratio of C remaining in a system to C entering that system. Biological CUE is the fraction of C taken up allocated to biosynthesis. In soils and sediments, C storage depends also on abiotic processes, so the term C-storage efficiency (CSE) can be used. Here we first review and reconcile CUE and CSE definitions proposed for autotrophic and heterotrophic organisms and communities, food webs, whole ecosystems and watersheds, and soils and sediments using a common mathematical framework. Second, we identify general CUE patterns; for example, the actual CUE increases with improving growth conditions, and apparent CUE decreases with increasing turnover. We then synthesize >5000CUE estimates showing that CUE decreases with increasing biological and ecological organization – from unicellular to multicellular organisms and from individuals to ecosystems. We conclude that CUE is an emergent property of coupled biological–abiotic systems, and it should be regarded as a flexible and scale-dependent index of the capacity of a given system to effectively retain C.