• light absorption profiles;
  • internal conductance;
  • chloroplast surface area;
  • Rubisco;
  • acclimation to light;
  • CO2 diffusion

The function of a leaf is photosynthesis, which requires the interception of light and access to atmospheric CO2 while controlling water loss. This paper examines the influence of leaf anatomy on both light capture and CO2 diffusion. As photosynthetic metabolism is spread between many chloroplasts, a leaf faces the challenge of matching light capture by a given chloroplast with the metabolic capacity of that chloroplast. Chloroplasts nearest the leaf surface receive the greatest irradiance and therefore absorb more light per unit chlorophyll than chloroplasts in the centre of a leaf. Electron transport and carbon fixation capacities per unit of chlorophyll decline with increasing depth in the leaf, to compensate for the decline in light absorbed per unit chlorophyll. Many key photosynthetic protein complexes in chloroplasts have nuclear encoded genetic information. Consequently, all chloroplasts within a given cell have a similar metabolic complement, which limits the potential gradient of photosynthetic capacity per unit chlorophyll across the leaf. A simple model couples light absorption through the leaf (based on the Beer–Lambert law) with the profile of chlorophyll through a leaf and the gradient in photosynthetic capacity. It is validated by comparison with 14CO2 fixation profiles through spinach leaves obtained in various studies. The model can account for published 14C fixation profiles obtained with blue, red and green light of different irradiances and white light applied in different combinations to the adaxial and abaxial surfaces of spinach leaves. The model confirms that spongy mesophyll increases the apparent extinction coefficient of chlorophyll compared to palisade tissue. The palisade tissue nearest the surface which receives light facilitates the penetration of light to a greater depth, while spongy mesophyll promotes scattering to enhance light absorption, thus reducing the gradient in light absorbed per unit chlorophyll through a leaf. CO2 fixation faces a diffusional limitation, which necessitates Rubisco to be spread evenly across the cell walls exposed to intercellular airspace. Mesophyll cell structure reflects the need to have a large cell surface per unit volume exposed to airspaces. The regular array of columnar cells in palisade tissue, or cell lobing in monocot leaves, results in greater exposed surface per unit tissue volume than spongy mesophyll. The exposed surface area per unit leaf area scales with photosynthetic capacity such that the difference in CO2 partial pressure between substomatal cavities and the sites of carboxylation within chloroplasts is, on average, independent of photosynthetic capacity of the leaf. However, Rubisco specific activity declines as the Rubisco content per unit leaf area increases due to greater internal diffusional limitations.