Exploiting heterogeneous environments: does photosynthetic acclimation optimize carbon gain in fluctuating light?

Plants have evolved complex mechanisms to balance the efficient use of absorbed light energy in photosynthesis with the capacity to use that energy in assimilation, so avoiding potential damage from excess light. This is particularly important under natural light, which can vary according to weather, solar movement and canopy movement. Photosynthetic acclimation is the means by which plants alter their leaf composition and structure over time to enhance photosynthetic efficiency and productivity. However there is no empirical or theoretical basis for understanding how leaves track historic light levels to determine acclimation status, or whether they do this accurately. We hypothesized that in fluctuating light (varying in both intensity and frequency), the light-response characteristics of a leaf should adjust (dynamically acclimate) to maximize daily carbon gain. Using a framework of mathematical modelling based on light-response curves, we have analysed carbon-gain dynamics under various light patterns. The objective was to develop new tools to quantify the precision with which photosynthesis acclimates according to the environment in which plants exist and to test this tool on existing data. We found an inverse relationship between the optimal maximum photosynthetic capacity and the frequency of low to high light transitions. Using experimental data from the literature we were able to show that the observed patterns for acclimation were consistent with a strategy towards maximizing daily carbon gain. Refinement of the model will further determine the precision of acclimation.