Owen Atkin

Plant Sciences

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.  Since 2014, his work has been supported by funding by the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, and by a grant from the International Wheat Yield Program.  He is the Senior Editor for the Environment Section of New Phytologist and is the Head of the Division of Plant Sciences in RSB, ANU.  A major focus of his research is assessing the impact of environmental gradients on plant physiological processes, particularly respiration. 

Research interests

My lab studies plant metabolic responses to environmental gradients, including how leaf respiration varies within and among biomes across the globe.  Working with climate modeling groups in the UK and USA, we are using the results of our field surveys to improve representation of leaf respiration in terrestrial biosphere models.  With colleagues in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, we are also using molecular, biochemical and physiological studies to understand the factors responsible for variation in respiration rates, both in crop (wheat and rice) and natural ecosystem species.   Understanding the processes that control heat tolerance of leaf carbon metabolism is also a focus of our current research.   

Current grants

  • ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology (CE140100008). 2014-2020. 
  • USA DoE Grant.  2014-2018.  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)] 
  • International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP), 2016-2019. Improving yield by optimising energy use efficiency. 



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. & Heskel, M. (2015). Measuring leaf respiration in the light under field conditions.Invited seminar presentation at the 18th New Phytologist Workshop–The Kok Effect: beyond the artifact, emerging leaf mechanisms, Anger, France, July 6-8, 2016.
  • Atkin, O.K. and 61 others (2015).  Global variability in leaf respiration in relation to climate and leaf traits.  Keynote seminar.  Session BG2.13 - Plant Traits and biogeochemical cycles.  European Geosciences Union General Assembly, Vienna, 17th April 2015.  Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 17, EGU2015-4793, 2015 (http://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EGU2015/orals/17110)
  • Atkin, O.K. (2014) Carbon balance and the prospects for reducing respiratory losses.  Invited talk at a workshop to aid in Development of GRDC Strategic Initiative in Heat Stress.  GRDC, Barton ACT 2600.  Dec 18th 2014
  • 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

  • Bahar, N.H.A., Ishida, F.Y., Weerasinghe, L.K., Guerrieri, R., O'Sullivan, O.S., et al. & and Atkin, O.K.  (2017). Leaf-level photosynthetic capacity in lowland Amazonian and high-elevation, Andean tropical moist forests of Peru.  New Phytologist.  Early online doi: 10.1111/nph.14079
  • O’Sullivan, O.S., Heskel, M.A., Reich, P.B., Tjoelker, M.G., et al. & Atkin, O.K. (2017). Thermal limits of leaf metabolism across biomes.  Global Change Biology 23: 209–223
  • Heskel, M.A., O’Sullivan, O.S., Reich, P.B., Tjoelker, M.G., et al. & Atkin, O.K. (2016).  Convergence in the temperature response of leaf respiration across biomes and plant functional types. PNAS USA.  113(14): 3832-3837.
  • Harper, A.B., Cox, P.M., Friedlingstein, P., Wiltshire, A., Jones, C.D., Sitch, S.A., Mercado, L.M., Groenendijk, M., Robertson, E., Kattge, J., Bönisch, G., Atkin, O.K., et al. (2016). Improved representation of plant functional types and physiology in the Joint UK Land Environment Simulator (JULES v4.2) using plant trait information. Geoscientific Model Development 9: 2415-2440. 
  • Heskel, M.A., Atkin, O.K., O’Sullivan, O.S., Reich, P., Tjoelker, M.G., et al. (2016) Reply to Adams et al.: Empirical versus process-based approaches to modelling temperature responses of leaf respiration. PNAS, USA.  113: E5996-E5997
  • Atkin, O.K., Bloomfield, K.J., Reich, P.B., Tjoelker, M.G., et al. (2015).  Global variability in leaf respiration among plant functional types in relation to climate and leaf traits.  New Phytologist 206: 614–636
  • Long, B.M., Bahar, N.H.A. and Atkin, O.K. (2015).  Contributions of photosynthetic and non-photosynthetic cell types to leaf respiration in Vicia faba L. and their responses to growth temperature.  Plant Cell and Environment 38: 2263–2276
  • 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.
  • Gauthier, P.P.G., Crous, K.Y., Ayub, G., Duan, H., Weerasinghe, K.W.L. K. Ellsworth, D.S., Tissue, D.T., Evans J.R., and Atkin O.K. (2014).  Drought increases heat tolerance of leaf respiration in Eucalyptus globulus saplings grown under ambient and elevated atmospheric [CO2] and temperature. Journal of Experimental Botany 65: 6471–6485
  • Weerasinghe, L.K., Creek, D., Crous, K.Y., Xiang, S., Liddell, M.J., Turnbull, M.H. and Atkin, O.K. (2014). Canopy position affects the relationships between leaf respiration and associated traits in a tropical rainforest in Far North Queensland.  Tree Physiology 34: 564-584
  • 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., et al. (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
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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.A., 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
  • Armstrong, A.F., Wardlaw, K.D. and Atkin, O.K. (2007). Assessing the relationship between cold acclimation of leaf respiration and photosystem II redox poise in Arabidopsis thaliana.  Plant, Cell and Environment 30: 1513-1522
  • 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.
  • Armstrong, A.F., Logan, D., Tobin, A.K., O’Toole, P. and Atkin, O.K. (2006).  Heterogeneity of plant mitochondrial responses underpinning respiratory acclimation to the cold in Arabidopsis thaliana leaves.  Plant, Cell and Environment 29: 940-949.
  • 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

In recent years, I have lectured or offered projects into the following courses at ANU:

1st year - Biol1009 (Diversity of Life)

2nd year - Biol2122 (Plant Functional Diversity: Genomes to Biomes) & Biol2203 (Field Studies in Functional Ecology)

3rd year - Biol3125 (Plants and Global Climate Change), Biol3107 (Advances in Medical and Plant Biochemistry) & Biol3208 (Biology Research Project)