Ecological implications of plants' ability to tell the time


The circadian clock (the endogenous mechanism that anticipates diurnal cycles) acts as a central coordinator of plant activity. At the molecular and organism level, it regulates key traits for plant fitness, including seed germination, gas exchange, growth and flowering, among others. In this article, we explore current evidence on the effect of the clock for the scales of interest to ecologists. We begin by synthesizing available knowledge on the effect of the clock on biosphere-atmosphere interactions and observe that, at least in the systems where it has been tested, the clock regulates gas exchange from the leaf to the ecosystem level, and we discuss its implications for estimates of the carbon balance. Then, we analyse whether incorporating the action of the clock may help in elucidating the effects of climate change on plant distributions. Circadian rhythms are involved in regulating the range of temperatures a species can survive and affects plant interactions. Finally, we review the involvement of the clock in key phenological events, such as flowering time and seed germination. Because the clock may act as a common mechanism affecting many of the diverse branches of ecology, our ultimate goal is to stimulate further research into this pressing, yet unexplored, topic.