Plants maximize photosynthetic returns on investments in leaf production by adopting strategies that cater to the demands of their biological surroundings.

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When planning to construct a new building or apply a new technology, creators may mimic the way a plant invests its energy when creating a leaf. Each design must be adapted to the place in which it is planned to be implemented. A building that will experience low-intensity change in technology may require more investment early on so that it may last a longer time in its environment. In competitive technological fields where research advances daily (such as solar panal design), however, less initial investment may be needed because once the technology is in place for use it will likely be replaced by another technology that does the job more efficiently. Thus, by turning to nature for example, we can fit form to function and effectively manage the returns on investments in the most efficient way possible.

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"Bringing together leaf trait data spanning 2,548 species and 175 sites we describe, for the first time at global scale, a universal spectrum of leaf economics consisting of key chemical, structural and physiological properties. The spectrum runs from quick to slow [photosynthetic] return on investments of nutrients and dry mass in leaves, and operates largely independently of growth form, plant functional type or biome. Categories along the spectrum would, in general, describe leaf economic variation at the global scale better than plant functional types, because functional types overlap substantially in their leaf traits" (Wright et al. 2004: 821).

Some additional explanation by one of the co-authors of a follow-up study, Dr. Lourens Poorter of Wageninger University: "'For example, only one percent of the light can penetrate to the understory of tropical rain forests. There is very little photosynthesis there and therefore, very little carbon absorbed per day. To obtain a yield from this in terms of new leaves, you would need leaves with a long life-span'. Toughness increases the chances of long life, such as by making leaves less attractive to leaf eaters. That enables leaves to be successful in the shadow. On the other hand, fast growers with not so tough leaves can be found in open spaces with much sunlight." (Kleis 2011).

Journal article
The worldwide leaf economics spectrumNatureApril 21, 2004
Ian J. Wright, Peter B. Reich, Mark Westoby, David D. Ackerly, Zdravko Baruch, Frans Bongers, Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Terry Chapin, Johannes H. C. Cornelissen, Matthias Diemer, Jaume Flexas, Eric Garnier, Philip K. Groom, Javier Gulias, Kouki Hikosaka, Byron B. Lamont, Tali Lee, William Lee, Christopher Lusk, Jeremy J. Midgley, Marie-Laure Navas, Ülo Niinemets, Jacek Oleksyn, Noriyuki Osada, Hendrik Poorter, Pieter Poot, Lynda Prior, Vladimir I. Pyankov, Catherine Roumet, Sean C. Thomas, Mark G. Tjoelker, Erik J. Veneklaas, Rafael Villar

Web page
Tough leaves live longer

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