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The plasticity of organ size and anatomy

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Leaf size of many, if not most, annuals is correlated with the rate of development, or vigor, of individual plants and even of individual branches. Two related questions were considered: whether there are vigor-dependent anatomical differences between leaves of different sizes, and whether organ size could be a neglected plasticity, a response to the overall state of the plant rather than to specific environmental cues. Senecio vernalis plants were grown outdoors in pots of three sizes. When the first capitula appeared, groups of plants were transferred from small and medium pots to large pots. There were 7-fold surface area differences between comparable leaves of plants in small and in large pots. Leaves that had been fully formed when plants were transferred to large pots "caught up";, reaching the leaf sizes characteristic of their new conditions. Stomata densities, vein length per unit area, and cross sections of palisade cells were measured. These parameters differed in large and small leaves, and the differences can be expected to be functionally significant because diffusion depends on absolute rather than relative distances. By no means were all of the increases in leaf size and anatomical changes on vigorous plants due to cell enlargement. Leaves that responded to a late transfer to large pots, however, displayed a constrained development in which the role of cell enlargement was dominant. Size differences were also observed in vessels of the stem xylem, and these differences can be expected to have large effects on conductivity. The results suggest that leaf size differences within a plant genotype indicate adaptations to varied ecological strategies. Similar leaf size differences were found in response to different environmental conditions, including the availability of nutrients in a controlled growth room, and to varied conditions in natural habitats. This suggests a neglected type of developmental plasticity: Rather than being a response to specific environmental signals it takes advantage of the state of the plant itself as a source of information about future conditions and the choice of optimal organ strategies.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Plant Sciences, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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