Phototropins are blue-light photoreceptor molecules mediating the capacity for phototropism or bending toward or away from directional light. Like the red-light sensing phytochromes that control shade avoidance, phototropins modulate developmental plasticity in plant architecture. Yet, unlike phytochromes, the adaptive significance of phototropins has been largely a topic of conjecture. In Arabidopsis thaliana, phototropism of seedling and plant stems is under the control of two paralogous genes, PHOT1 and PHOT2, that encode different phototropins with partially redundant light response qualities. The PHOT1 gene product interacts with the NPH3 gene product to cause phototropic bending over a broad range of light intensity, from very weak light in the soil to stronger light in the aerial environment. The PHOT2 gene product modulates shoot bending in response to light of higher intensity only. We compared the fitness of wild-type, phot1, phot2, and nph3 genotypes over a range of light conditions in the field. Seeds were sown in the field on the soil surface and left bare or covered with either gravel or bark mulch chips. Plantings were made under full sun and dense canopy cover. Rates of seedling emergence, survival to flowering, and total seed set were measured. All mutant genotypes had significantly reduced lifetime fitness compared to wild-type. Consistent with their different fluence rate sensitivities, phot1 and phot2 signaling pathways affected fitness at discrete life-cycle stages. Fitness costs of phot1 and nph3 were expressed mainly during seedling emergence from the soil whereas that of phot2 was expressed solely after emergence. Surprisingly, the only significant genotype-by-environment interaction for fitness occurred during emergence: genotypes blind to dim blue light (phot1 and nph3) had poor emergence in the open, but not in the shade. Possibly, the loss of negative phototropism in seedling roots of mutant genotypes reduced establishment success in open (dry soil) conditions. Results show that phototropin-modulated pathways are adaptive and that their evolution has involved functional specialization. However, mechanism(s) of selection on these pathways remain a mystery.
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Vol. 58 • No. 3