Barbara M. Neto-Bradley, Christopher D. Muir, Jeannette Whitton and Matthew W. Pennell. 2021. Phylogenetic history of vascular plant metabolism revealed using a macroevolutionary common garden. Proceedings of the Royal Society B
While the fundamental biophysics of C3 photosynthesis is highly conserved across plants, substantial leaf structural and enzymatic variation translates into variability in rates of carbon assimilation. Although this variation is well documented, it remains poorly understood how photosynthetic rates evolve, and whether macroevolutionary changes are related to the evolution of leaf morphology and biochemistry. A substantial challenge in large-scale comparative studies is disentangling evolutionary adaptation from environmental acclimation. We overcome this by using a ‘macroevolutionary common garden’ approach in which we measured metabolic traits (Jmax and Vcmax) from 111 phylogenetically diverse species in a shared environment. We find substantial phylogenetic signal in these traits at moderate phylogenetic timescales, but this signal dissipates quickly at deeper scales. Morphological traits exhibit phylogenetic signal over much deeper timescales, suggesting that these are less evolutionarily constrained than metabolic traits. Furthermore, while morphological and biochemical traits (LMA, Narea and Carea) are weakly predictive of Jmax and Vcmax, evolutionary changes in these traits are mostly decoupled from changes in metabolic traits. This lack of tight evolutionary coupling implies that it may be incorrect to use changes in these functional traits in response to global change to infer that photosynthetic strategy is also evolving.