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Keywords:

  • heterogeneity;
  • hierarchical selection;
  • independence;
  • integration;
  • modularity;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • reaction norm

Summary

Based on empirical evidence from the literature we propose that, in nature, phenotypic plasticity in plants is usually expressed at a subindividual level. While reaction norms (i.e. the type and the degree of plant responses to environmental variation) are a property of genotypes, they are expressed at the level of modular subunits in most plants. We thus contend that phenotypic plasticity is not a whole-plant response, but a property of individual meristems, leaves, branches and roots, triggered by local environmental conditions. Communication and behavioural integration of interconnected modules can change the local responses in different ways: it may enhance or diminish local plastic effects, thereby increasing or decreasing the differences between integrated modules exposed to different conditions. Modular integration can also induce qualitatively different responses, which are not expressed if all modules experience the same conditions. We propose that the response of a plant to its environment is the sum of all modular responses to their local conditions plus all interaction effects that are due to integration. The local response rules to environmental variation, and the modular interaction rules may be seen as evolving traits targeted by natural selection. Following this notion, whole-plant reaction norms are an integrative by-product of modular plasticity, which has far-reaching methodological, ecological and evolutionary implications.