Testing the Optimal Defense Theory and the Growth-differentiation Balance Hypothesis in Arabidopsis thaliana

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Two prominent theories proposed to explain patterns of chemical defense expression in plants are the optimal defense theory (ODT) and the growth-differentiation balance hypothesis (GDBH). The ODT predicts that plant parts with high fitness value will be highly defended, and the GDBH predicts that slow growing plant parts will have more resources available for defense and thus will have higher defense levels than faster growing tissues. We examined growth rate, fitness value, and defense protein levels in leaves of a wild and lab ecotype of Arabidopsis thaliana to address whether patterns of defense protein expression in this plant conform to predictions of either the ODT or the GDBH. We divided leaves of A. thaliana into six leaf classes based on three developmental stages: vegetative, bolting, and flowering; with two leaf ages at each stage: young and old. We assessed the fitness value of leaves by determining the impact of the removal of each leaf class on total seed production and germination rates. Although A. thaliana was highly tolerant to defoliation, young leaves were more valuable than old in general, and young leaves on bolting plants were the most valuable leaf class in particular. Young leaves on vegetative plants grew fastest in both ecotypes, while old leaves on bolting and flowering plants grew slowest. Finally, defense levels were assessed in each leaf class by quantifying the constitutive and inducible expression of four defense-related proteins. Expression of guaiacol peroxidase and chitinase activity conformed largely to GDBH predictions. Expression of trypsin inhibitor and polyphenoloxidase activity varied by leaf class and treatment, but conformed to neither GDBH nor ODT predictions.