Comparative ecophysiology of leaf and canopy photosynthesis


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Leaves and herbaceous leaf canopies photosynthesize efficiently although the distribution of light, the ultimate resource of photosynthesis, is very biased in these systems. As has been suggested in theoretical studies, if a photosynthetic system is organized such that every photosynthetic apparatus photosynthesizes in concert, the system as a whole has the sharpest light response curve and is most adaptive. This condition can be approached by (i) homogenization of the light environment and (ii) acclimation of the photosynthetic properties of leaves or chloroplasts to their local light environments. This review examines these two factors in the herbaceous leaf canopy and in the leaf. Changes in the inclination of leaves in the canopy and differentiation of mesophyll into palisade and spongy tissue contribute to the moderation of the light gradient. Leaf and chloroplast movements in the upper parts of these systems under high irradiances also moderate light gradients. Moreover, acclimation of leaves and chloroplasts to the local light environment is substantial. These factors increase the efficiency of photosynthesis considerably. However, the systems appear to be less efficient than the theoretical optimum. When the systems are optically dense, the light gradients may be too great for leaves or chloroplasts to acclimate. The loss of photosynthetic production attributed to the imperfect adjustment of photosynthetic apparatus to the local light environment is most apparent when the photosynthesis of the system is in the transition between the light‐limited and light‐saturated phases. Although acclimation of the photosynthetic apparatus and moderation of light gradients are imperfect, these markedly raise the efficiency of photosynthesis. Thus more mechanistic studies on these adaptive attributes are needed. The causes and consequences of imperfect adjustment should also be investigated.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1111-1128
Number of pages18
JournalPlant, Cell & Environment
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1995 Oct
Externally publishedYes


  • ageing
  • canopy photosynthesis
  • leaf photosynthesis
  • light gradient
  • sun/shade acclimation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


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