Perspectives on improving light distribution and light use efficiency in crop canopies
Plant stands in nature differ markedly from most seen in modern agriculture. In a dense mixed stand, plants must vie for resources, including light, for greater survival and fitness. Competitive advantages over surrounding plants improve fitness of the individual, thus maintaining the competitive traits in the gene pool. In contrast, monoculture crop production strives to increase output at the stand level and thus benefits from cooperation to increase yield of the community. In choosing plants with higher yields to propagate and grow for food, humans may have inadvertently selected the best competitors rather than the best cooperators. Here, we discuss how this selection for competitiveness has led to overinvestment in characteristics that increase light interception and, consequently, sub-optimal light use efficiency in crop fields that constrains yield improvement. Decades of crop canopy modeling research have provided potential strategies for improving light distribution in crop canopies, and we review the current progress of these strategies, including balancing light distribution through reducing pigment concentration. Based on recent research revealing red-shifted photosynthetic pigments in algae and photosynthetic bacteria, we also discuss potential strategies for optimizing light interception and use through introducing alternative pigment types in crops. These strategies for improving light distribution and expanding the wavelengths of light beyond those traditionally defined for photosynthesis in plant canopies may have large implications for improving crop yield and closing the yield gap.