Chlorophills and Carotenoids
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Less popular does not mean less important: chlorophylls and carotenoids
It is well known that chlorophylls, associated with the green color of leaves, are key components of photosynthesis and therefore essential for the plant physiology. However, they are not the only key pigments for the plant survival. Less popular than chlorophylls, but still essential, carotenoids are a family of pigments that exhibit a range of colors and functions and can be found in different organs including roots (e.g., carrots), fruits (e.g., tomatoes) and leaves.
In plants, carotenoids are involved in several fundamental processes. In photosynthesis, carotenoids can absorb light wavelengths that chlorophylls are not able to absorb (around 500 nm). Thus, carotenoids increase the spectrum absorption during photosynthesis working as accessory pigments. Moreover, due to its physicochemical properties, carotenoids can disperse the excess of energy produced during the photosynthesis, exhibiting a photoprotective role during this essential process.
The biosynthetic pathways of chlorophylls and carotenoids share some molecules. This means that their production is interconnected, and their abundance can influence to each other under certain circumstances.
Moreover, carotenoids are precursors of plant hormones including Abscisic Acid (ABA) and strigolactones. ABA is a well-established key player in abiotic stress resistance, seed dormancy and organ size. On the other hand, stringolactones have been less studied, but they have been described involved in the control of plant development (e.g branching) and facilitating growth of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Carotenoids are also relevant in some flowers, playing a role in attracting seed-dispersing organisms.
Photos by Marcella Eyre
Overall, carotenoids have been associated to a wide range of biological functions, crucial for the plant physiology and for the normal plant development.
Since chlorophylls and carotenoids participates in essential physiological functions, these pigments can be used as indicators for the plant health. Reduced levels of chlorophylls and/or carotenoids are normally a consequence of a nutritional deficiency and/of a stress exposure. Deficiencies of macronutrients (e.g. nitrogen), micronutrients (e.g. Fe, Mg or Zn), waterlogged roots or pathogen infection, are examples of causes for a reduction in chlorophyll level. This results in leaves exhibiting a yellowish color. Moreover, plants with reduced levels of carotenoids will be sensitive to abiotic stimuli such as drought and light exposure. Severe reductions in these pigments could be ultimately lethal for the plant.
Photo by Carlos Flores
A reduction in both chlorophylls and/or carotenoid will have a negative impact in the plant development, and a concomitant reduction in yield. Therefore, maintaining these levels within the normal range it has to be a priority in order to ensure and maximize the production. Monitoring levels of these pigments represents a powerful agricultural tool to identify problems in plants and amend any deficiencies and/or stress in time to reduce the negative effects.
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