Individual fitness versus whole-crop photosynthesis: Solar tracking tradeoffs in alfalfa

R. Ford Denison, James M. Fedders, Barry L. Harter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Despite the optimism of some molecular biologists, natural selection among the wild ancestors of crops is unlikely to have missed simple genetic improvements that would consistently have enhanced individual fitness. Tradeoff-free opportunities for further improvement of crop traits like photosynthetic efficiency or drought tolerance may therefore be elusive. Opportunities linked to acceptable tradeoffs may be abundant, however. Tradeoffs between individual competitiveness and the collective productivity of plant communities (e.g. those linked to height) have been key to past increases in yield potential. Solar tracking by leaves could involve such tradeoffs, if photosynthetic benefits to tracking leaves are outweighed by increased shading of leaves lower in the canopy. This hypothesis was tested using rotation in the horizontal plane to disrupt solar tracking in alfalfa. In sparse canopies, solar tracking increased net canopy photosynthesis, but rarely by more than 3%. As leaf area increased, solar tracking tended to decrease net canopy photosynthesis, despite edge effects in our 1-m2 artificial communities, which probably exaggerated net photosynthetic benefits of tracking. Computer modeling suggested that the season-long effects of solar tracking on community productivity can be negative. Solar tracking may have persisted, nonetheless, because individuals whose leaves track the sun increase shading of competitors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)466-472
Number of pages7
JournalEvolutionary Applications
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - Sep 2010


  • Competition
  • Heliotropism
  • Photosynthesis
  • Solar tracking
  • Tradeoff


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