How virtual shade sheds light on plant plasticity

Phenotypic plasticity is the ability of a genotype to express multiple phenotypes in accordance with different environments. Although variation in plasticity has been observed, there is limited knowledge on how this variation results from natural selection.
This thesis analyses how variation in the level of plasticity influences light competition between plants and how this variation could result from selection, driven by light competition, in various environments.

As an exemplary case of phenotypic plasticity, this thesis focusses on phenotypic responses of the annual rosette plant Arabidopsis thaliana (Brassicaceae) in response to the proximity of neighbour plants, as signalled through the red : far—red (R:FR) ratio, which are responses associated with the shade avoidance syndrome (SAS).

Plant experiments were conducted to measure variation in these plastic responses and a functional-structural plant (FSP) model was created that simulates plant structures in 3D and includes these organ-level plastic responses while simulating explicitly a heterogeneous light environment. Simulating individual plants that explicitly compete for light, while their phenotype changes through plasticity, gave insights in the role of the level of phenotypic plasticity and site of signal perception on plant competitiveness. In addition, an analysis on how natural selection in different environments acts on the level of plasticity was performed by combining FSP simulations and evolutionary game theoretical (EGT) principles.