The top leaves of crops absorb far more light than they can use, starving lower leaves of light. Scientists designed plants with light green leaves with hopes of allowing more light to penetrate the crop canopy and increase overall light use efficiency and yield. This strategy was tested in a recent modeling study that found leaves with reduced chlorophyll content do not actually improve canopy-level photosynthesis, but instead, conserve a significant amount of nitrogen that the plant might be able to reinvest to improve light use efficiency and increase yield.
Chlorophyll plays a pivotal role in photosynthesis, which is why plants have evolved to have high chlorophyll levels in their leaves. However, making this pigment is expensive because plants invest a significant portion of the available nitrogen in both chlorophyll and the special proteins that bind it. As a result, nitrogen is unavailable for other processes. In a new study, researchers reduced the chlorophyll levels in leaves to see if the plant would invest the nitrogen saved into other process that might improve nutritional quality.