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Curr Top Dev Biol. 2005;66:135-60.

The colors of autumn leaves as symptoms of cellular recycling and defenses against environmental stresses.

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  • 1Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, Plas Gogerddan, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 3EB, Wales, United Kingdom.


The color changes that occur during foliar senescence are directly related to the regulation of nutrient mobilization and resorption from leaf cells, often under conditions of biotic and abiotic stress. Chlorophyll is degraded through a metabolic pathway that becomes specifically activated in senescence. Chlorophyll catabolic enzymes and genes have been identified and characterized and aspects of their regulation analyzed. Particular genetic interventions in the pathway lead to disruptions in protein mobilization and increased sensitivity to light-dependent cell damage and death. The chemistry and metabolism of carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments in senescing leaves are considered. Bright autumn colors observed in the foliage of some woody species have been hypothesized to act as a defense signal to potential insect herbivores. Critical consideration of the biochemical and physiological features of normal leaf senescence leads to the conclusion that accumulating or unmasking compounds with new colors are unlikely to represent a costly investment on the part of the tree. The influences of human evolutionary and social history on our own perception of autumn coloration are discussed. The possibility that insect herbivores may respond to volatiles emitted during leaf senescence, rather than to bright colors, is also presented. Finally, some new approaches to the analysis of protein recycling in senescence are briefly considered.

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