New Shades to Fall-Color Research

By Cowen, Robert C. | The Christian Science Monitor, October 24, 2002 | Go to article overview

New Shades to Fall-Color Research


Cowen, Robert C., The Christian Science Monitor


As autumn colors blaze, take a good look at the reds. They reflect a sophisticated leaf security system that, after nearly two centuries of scientific speculation, botanists now are beginning to understand.

As green chlorophyll degrades, it unmasks underlying yellow carotenoid pigments, as textbook botany says it should. But reds are something else. There are no preexisting brown-to-red anthocyanin pigments, which give color to the leaves of 70 percent of mid- latitude forest trees. Aging leaves pump up production of these colorful compounds just in time to replace their fading summer greens with flashy autumn hues.

As recently as a decade ago, many botanists would say, "That's nice, but what's in it for the trees?" Botanist David Lee at Florida International University in Miami says there now is good, if not yet definitive, evidence that the anthocyanins protect the leaves' photosynthesis machinery from destructive influences long enough for the system to shut down in an orderly manner.

Dr. Lee and his New Zealand colleague Kevin Gould at the University of Auckland also suspect that this boosts the efficiency with which plants recover the nitrogen they invested in that machinery during the growing system - nitrogen that can be reinvested in new leaves next spring.

In other words, the resources that the trees put into ramping up this late-season protection system enable them to recover an even larger capital investment in nitrogen. Lee says they still need more specific evidence to back up that suspicion.

In any event, Lee explains that the fact that anthocyanin production "is a very widespread phenomenon" shows it is important in the plant world. …

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