Plants are expected to maximize their net photosynthetic gains and efficiently use available resources, but the fundamental principles governing trade-offs in suites of traits related to resource-use optimization remain uncertain. This study investigated whether Acer saccharum (sugar maple) saplings could maximize their net photosynthetic gains through a combination of crown structure and foliar characteristics that let all leaves maximize their photosynthetic light-use efficiency (ε). A functional-structural model, LIGNUM, was used to simulate individuals of different leaf area index (LAI(ind)) together with a genetic algorithm to find distributions of leaf angle (L(A)) and leaf photosynthetic capacity (A(max)) that maximized net carbon gain at the whole-plant level. Saplings grown in either the open or in a forest gap were simulated with A(max) either unconstrained or constrained to an upper value consistent with reported values for A(max) in A. saccharum. It was found that total net photosynthetic gain was highest when whole-plant PPFD absorption and leaf ε were simultaneously maximized. Maximization of ε required simultaneous adjustments in L(A) and A(max) along gradients of PPFD in the plants. When A(max) was constrained to a maximum, plants growing in the open maximized their PPFD absorption but not ε because PPFD incident on leaves was higher than the PPFD at which ε(max) was attainable. Average leaf ε in constrained plants nonetheless improved with increasing LAI(ind) because of an increase in self-shading. It is concluded that there are selective pressures for plants to simultaneously maximize both PPFD absorption at the scale of the whole individual and ε at the scale of leaves, which requires a highly integrated response between L(A), A(max) and LAI(ind). The results also suggest that to maximize ε plants have evolved mechanisms that co-ordinate the L(A) and A(max) of individual leaves with PPFD availability.
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