Owen Atkin



Owen Atkin obtained his BSc (Hons) in 1987 (ANU) and his PhD in 1993 (Toronto). From 1993-1995 he held an EU Post Doctoral Fellowship (Utrecht).  From 1996-1999 he held an ARC Post Doctoral Fellowship at ANU. Thereafter, he moved to UK to take up a faculty position in the Biology Dept at the University of York (1999-2008). He then returned to ANU in 2008 and held an ARC Future Fellowship from 2009 to 2013.  From 2014, his work is supported by funding by the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.  He is an Editor for New Phytologist and is a Member of the Faculty of 1000.  A major focus of his research is assessing the impact of environmental gradients on plant physiological processes, particularly respiration. 


Research awards

Research interests

In recent years, the Atkin group has used field studies to quantify variations in leaf respiration among taxa and along global climatic gradients, and to establish whether relationships between respiration and associated leaf traits (e.g. photosynthetic capacity, leaf chemistry and structure) vary predictably among environments and plant functional types. Working with climate modeling groups, we are using the results of these analyses to improve representation of respiration in the land surface components of Earth System Models. A further focus of our field-based research has been characterization of seasonal variation in physiological processes (including heat tolerance of leaf metabolism) at several ‘supersites’ within the Terrestrial Ecological Research Network (TERN). Collectively, our fieldwork has highlighted how rates of leaf respiration differ markedly among co-existing taxa at any one site, and how leaf respiration often adjusts/acclimates to changes in growth temperature and water availability.

Our understanding of the underlying factors responsible for variability remains limited, however; thus, in coming years, a focus of the Atkin lab (working with others in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology) will be to elucidate the molecular, biochemical and physiological factors responsible for genotypic & phenotypic variation in leaf respiration.   Similarly, understanding what controls variability in heat tolerance of leaf metabolism will be focus of future research. Finally, the Atkin lab is continuing work on nitrogen productivity of several crop species (rice, barley and wheat) – here, our aim is to elucidate factors that underpin improved N use effiency in crops.

Current grants

  • ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology (CE140100008). Jan 2014-Dec 2021. 
  • USA DoE Grant.  Oct 2014-Oct 2017.  Global land model development: time to shift from a plant functional type to a plant functional trait approach.  [CIs: Peter Reich and Arindam Banerjee (Uni of Minnesota, USA, Peter Thornton (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, USA)] 
  • ARC Discovery Research Grant (DP130101252). July 2013-June 2016. Disentangling climate and evolutionary controls over the temperature-dependence of leaf respiration.
  • Terrestrial Ecological Research Network (TERN). 2012-2014. Ecophysiological measurement - the missing link between vegetation modelling, biodiversity and ecosystem function (with C. Prentice, UoMQ/Imperial College, London)



Much of our work is done in collaboration with other research groups at ANU, elsewhere in Australia and overseas. These include current links with:


Recent conference presentations

  • Atkin, O.K. (2014).  Leaf photosynthetic and respiratory CO2 exchange in two thermally-contrasting Australian tropical rainforest ecosystems.  Oral presentation at 51st Annual Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation 2014, Cairns, July 22 2014.
  • Atkin, O.K. (2013). Plant ecophysiological measurements at TERN Supersites: a crucial link between vegetation modelling, biodiversity and ecosystem function.  Invited seminar presentation at the 2013 Symposium of the Terrestrial Ecological Research Network (TERN).  Old Parliament House, Canberra, February 19 2013.
  • Atkin, O.K. (2012). Plant respiration in a thermally dynamic world. Smithsonian Temperature Symposium – Tropical vegetation and rising temperatures: functional basis of ecological response, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama City, Panama, June 1-2 2012
  • Atkin, O.K. (2011) Coupling of leaf carbon metabolism with chemical composition Variability among species and environmental gradients. Invited seminar presentation at the 27th New Phytologist Symposium – Stoichiometric flexibility in terrestrial ecosystems under global change, Biosphere II, Oracle, Arizona, USA, September 25-28, 2011
  • Atkin, O.K. (2010). Impacts of thermal history on plant respiration: An organelle, organ and global perspective. Plenary, XVII Congress of the Federation of European Societies of Plant Biology (FESPB) – Valencia, Spain, July 4-9, 2010.


Selected publications

  • Atkin O.K., Meir P. and Turnbull M.H. (2014) Improving representation of leaf respiration in large-scale predictive climate–vegetation models. New Phytologist 202: 743-748.
  • Heskel, M.A., Greaves, H., Turnbull, M.T., O’Sullivan, O.S., Shaver, G., Griffin, K.L. and Atkin, O.K. (2014). Thermal acclimation of shoot respiration in an Arctic woody plant species subjected to 22 years of warming and altered nutrient supply.  Global Change Biology 20: 2618–2630
  • Atkin, O.K., Turnbull, M.H., Zaragoza-Castells, J, Fyllas, N., Lloyd, J., Meir, P. and Kevin L. Griffin (2013).  Light inhibition of leaf respiration as soil fertility declines along a post-glacial chronosequence in New Zealand: an analysis using the Kok method.  Plant and Soil 367: 163–182.
  • Huntingford, C., Zelazowski, P., Galbraith, D., Mercado, L.M., Sitch, S., Fisher, R., Lomas, M., Walker, A., Jones, C.D., Booth, B.B.B., Malhi, Y., Hemming, D., Kay, G., Good, P., Lewis, S., Phillips, O.L., Atkin, O.K., Lloyd, J., Gloor,, M., Zaragoza-Castells, J. Meir, P., Betts, R., Harris, P.P., Nobre, C., Marengo, J. and Cox, P.M. (2013). Simulated resilience of tropical rainforest to CO2–induced climate change.  Nature Geoscience 6: 268–273
  • O’Sullivan, O.S., Weerasinghe, K.W.L.K., Evans, J.R., Egerton, J.G., Tjoelker, M.G. and Atkin, O.K. (2013).  High-resolution temperature responses of leaf respiration in snow gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora) reveal high-temperature limits to respiratory function. Plant Cell and Environment 36: 1268-1284
  • Kornfeld, A., Atkin, O.K., Griffin, K.L., Horton, T.W., Yakir, D. and Turnbull, M.H. (2013).  Modulation of respiratory metabolism in response to nutrient changes along a soil chronosequence. Plant Cell and Environment 36: 1120-1134. 
  • Xiang, S., Reich, P.B., Sun, S. and Atkin, O.K. (2013) Contrasting leaf trait scaling relationships in tropical and temperate wet forest species.  Functional Ecology 27: 520-532.
  • Kornfeld, A., Heskel, M.A., Atkin, O.K., Griffin, K.L., Gough, L., Horton, T.W. and Turnbull, M.H. (2013).  Respiratory flexibility and efficiency are affected by simulated global change in Arctic plants. New Phytologist 197: 1161-1172.
  • Kornfeld, A. Horton, T., Yakir, D., Searle, S., Griffin, K.L., Atkin, O.K., Subke J. and Turnbull, M.T. (2012). A field-compatible method for measuring alternative respiratory pathway activities in vivo using stable O2 isotope. Plant Cell and Environment 35: 1518-1532
  • Crous, K.Y., Zaragoza-Castells, J., Ellsworth, D., Duursma, R.A., Löw, M., Tissue, D.T., and Atkin, O.K. (2012). Light inhibition of Eucalyptus saligna leaf respiration under elevated atmospheric CO2 and drought: impacts on the carbon economy of forest canopies. Plant Cell and Environment 35: 966-976
  • Searle, S.T., Bitterman, D.S.,Thomas, S., Griffin, K.L., Atkin, O.K. and Turnbull, M.H. (2011). Respiratory alternative oxidase responds to both low and high temperature stress in Quercus rubra leaves along an urban-rural gradient in New York. Functional Ecology 25: 1007-1017
  • Kattge J, Díaz S, Lavorel S, et al. (2011). TRY – a global database of plant traits. Global Change Biology 17: 2905–2935
  • Ayub, G., Smith, R., Tissue, D.T. and Atkin, O.K. (2011) Impacts of drought on leaf respiration in darkness and in the light in Eucalyptus saligna exposed to industrial-age atmospheric CO2 and growth temperature. New Phytologist 190: 1003–1018
  • Crous, K.Y., Zaragoza-Castells, J., Löw, M., Ellsworth, D., Tissue, D.T., Tjoelker, M.G., Barton, C.V.M., Gimeno, T.E., and Atkin, O.K. (2011) Seasonal acclimation of leaf respiration in Eucalyptus saligna trees: impacts of elevated atmospheric CO2 and summer drought. Global Change Biology 17: 1560–1576
  • Nicotra, A., Atkin, O.K., Bonser, S.P.,Davidson, A., Finnegan, E.J., Mathesius, U., Poot, P., Purugganan, M.D., Richards, C.L., Valladares, F., van Kleunen, M. (2010) Plant phenotypic plasticity in a changing climate. Trends in Plant Science 15: 684-892
  • Atkinson, L.J., Campbell, C.D., Zaragoza-Castells, J., Hurry, V.M. and Atkin, O.K. (2010). Growth temperature and scaling relationships linking photosynthetic metabolism to leaf functional traits. Functional Ecology 24: 1181–1191
  • Gorsuch, P.A., Sargent A., Penfield, S., Quick, W.P. and Atkin, O.K. (2010). Systemic low temperature signaling in Arabidopsis. Plant and Cell Physiology 51: 1488-1498
  • Gorsuch, P., Pandey, S., and Atkin, O.K. (2010). Thermal de-acclimation: how permanent is the leaf phenotype when cold-acclimated plants experience warming? Plant, Cell and Environment 33: 1124–1137
  • Atkin O.K. and Macherel, D. (2009) The crucial role of plant mitochondria in orchestrating drought tolerance. Annals of Botany 103: 581-597
  • Atkin, O.K., Atkinson, L.J., Fisher, R., Campbell, C.D., Zaragoza-Castells, J., Woodward, F.I., Pitchford, J., and Hurry, V. (2008). Using temperature-dependent changes in leaf scaling relationships to quantitatively account for thermal acclimation of respiration in a coupled global climate-vegetation model. Global Change Biology 14: 2709-2726
  • Armstrong, A.F., Badger, M.R., Day, D.A., Barthet, M., Smith, P. , Whelan, J., Millar, A.H. and Atkin, O.K. (2008) Dynamic changes in the mitochondrial electron transport chain underpinning thermal acclimation of leaf respiration. Plant, Cell and Environment 31: 1156-1169
  • Campbell, C.D., Atkinson, L.J., Zaragoza-Castells, J., Lundmark, M., Atkin, O. and Hurry, V. (2007). Acclimation of photosynthesis and respiration is asynchronous in response to changes in temperature regardless of plant functional group. New Phytologist 176: 375-389
  • Atkin, O.K., Scheurwater, I. and Pons, T.L. (2007). Respiration as a percentage of daily photosynthesis in whole plants is homeostatic at moderate, but not high, growth temperatures. New Phytologist 174: 367-380
  • Covey-Crump, E.M., Bykova, N.V., Affourtit, C., Hoefnagel, M.H.N., Gardeström, P. and Atkin, O.K. (2007). Temperature-dependent changes in respiration rates and redox poise of the ubiquinone pool in protoplasts and isolated mitochondria of potato leaves. Physiologia Plantarum 129: 175-184
  • Atkin, O.K. and Tjoelker, M.G. (2003). Thermal acclimation and the dynamic response of plant respiration to temperature. Trends in Plant Science 8: 343-351.

All publications

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