5.3.4  Photoassimilate transport and biomass production

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(a)  Whole-plant growth

Sink and source strength must be in balance at a whole-plant level. Thus, an increase in whole-plant sink strength must be matched by an equal increase in source strength, either through increases in source activity or source size. Prior to canopy closure in a crop, much of the increase in source strength comes from increased source size, source activity remaining relatively constant. Significantly, until a leaf has reached some 30% of its final size, photoassimilates for leaf production are exclusively imported through the phloem from fully expanded leaves (Figure 5.12).

On canopy closure, self-shading and senescence of the lower leaves result in whole-plant photosynthesis being restricted to the uppermost leaves exposed to direct sunlight. Under these conditions, either genetic or environmentally imposed differences in source activity can influence biomass production.

(b)  Photoassimilate transport and crop yield

During domestication of crop plants, plant breeders selected for crop yield via maximum investment into harvested organs (mostly seeds). Total plant biomass production of advanced wheat is the same as its wild progenitors yet grain yield has increased some 30-fold through breeding (Table 5.2). That is, whole-plant source and sink strength have not changed. Increases in wheat yield (Table 5.2) are associated with a diversion of photoassimilates from vegetative organs to the developing grain, as illustrated by the relative accumulation of 14C photoassimilates exported from the flag leaf (Table 5.2).

Final grain yield is not only determined by partitioning of current photoassimilates, but also depends upon remobilisation of non-structural carbohydrates stored in stems, particularly under conditions where environmental stress impairs leaf photosynthesis (Wardlaw 1990). In fact, remobilisation of reserves affects yield in many food plants. For example, deciduous fruit trees depend entirely on remobilised photo-assimilates to support flowering and fruit set as do early stages of pasture regrowth following grazing.