What Are Plants Made Of?

Have you ever thought about what plants are made of? I mean, really thought about it. Strip away all the splendor and glory of all the different plant species on this planet and really take a close look at how plants grow and make more plants. It is a fascinating realm and it all has to do with photosynthesis. To go from photons given off by our nearest star to a full grown plant is quite the journey and, at the end of that journey, you may be surprised to learn what plants are all about.

It starts with photons. Leaving the sun they travel out into the universe. Some eventually collide with Earth and make their way to the surface. Plants position their leaves to absorb these photons. Energy from the photons is used to split water molecules inside the chloroplasts. In the process of splitting water, oxygen is released as a byproduct (thanks plants!). Splitting water also releases electrons and hydrogen ions.

These electrons and hydrogen ions are used to make energy in the form of ATP. Along with some electrons, ATP is then used in another cycle known as the Calvin cycle. The point of the Calvin cycle is to take in CO2 and use the energy created prior to reduce carbon molecules into chains of organic molecules. Most of the carbon in a plant comes from the intake of CO2. Through a series of steps (I will spare you the details) plants piece together carbon atoms into long chains. Some of these chains form glucose and some of that glucose gets linked together into cellulose.

Cellulose is the main structural component of plant cells. From the smallest plants in the world (genus Wolffia) all the way up to the largest and tallest redwoods and sequoias (incidentally some of the largest organisms to have ever existed on this planet) , all of them are built out of cellulose. So, in essence, all the plant life you see out there is literally built from the ground up by carbon originating from CO2 gas. Pretty incredible stuff, wouldn't you agree?

Delayed Greening

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It goes without saying that leaves are vital to the existence of any photosynthetic plant. They are, after all, the food making organs. This is why plants go to great lengths to protect them. Losing leaves can be extremely costly. One of the most intriguing methods of anti-herbivory in plants is known as delayed greening. Flushes of new growth bathed in reds, whites, and light greens can color forests from top to bottom. 

Delayed greening is a matter of resource conservation and herbivore protection. The cellular machinery that makes photosynthesis possible is costly to produce. It requires large amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, that are often in short supply. If a plant can help it, its best to avoid losing a leaf chock full of these precious materials. Delayed greening does just that. 

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Essentially, the process proceeds exactly as it sounds. Young shoots and leaves gradually expand over time, becoming more green as they grow tougher and better defended. When a plant packs its leaves full of photosynthetic machinery right out of the gates, when leaves are small and tender, it runs the risk of loosing all of its investment to a hungry herbivore. In contrast, non-photosynthetic leaves are thought to be less palatable to herbivores because they simply do not have the nutritional content of photosynthetic leaves.

By delaying the development of chlorophyll until the leaf is fully expanded and a bit tougher, some plants are maximizing the chances of successfully increasing their photosynthetic capacity over time. Research has shown that plants that exhibit the delayed greening strategy experience significant reductions in the amount of herbivory over time. What they lose with the lack of photosynthesis early on they make up for in the fact that such leaves last longer.  

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]