The relationship between plant growth and water consumption: a history from the classical four elements to modern stable isotopes

Key message
The history of the relationship between plant growth and water consumption is retraced by following the progression of scientific thought through the centuries: from a purely philosophical question, to conceptual and methodological developments, towards a research interest in plant functioning and the interaction with the environment.

Abstract
Context The relationship between plant growth and water consumption has for a long time occupied the minds of philosophers and natural scientists. The ratio between biomass accumulation and water consumption is known as water use efficiency and is widely relevant today in fields as diverse as plant improvement, forest ecology and climate change. Defined at scales varying from single leaf physiology to whole plants, it shows how botanical investigations changed through time, generally in tandem with developing disciplines and improving methods. The history started as a purely philosophical question by Greek philosophers of how plants grow, progressed through thought and actual experiments, towards an interest in the functioning of plants and the relationship to the environment.
Aims This article retraces this history by following the progression of scientific questions posed through the centuries, and presents not only the main methodological and conceptual developments on biomass growth and transpiration but also the development of the carbon isotopic method of estimation. The history of research on photosynthesis is only touched briefly, but the development of research on transpiration and stomatal conductance is presented with more detail.
Conclusion Research on water use efficiency, following a path from the whole plant to leaf-level functioning, was strongly involved in the historical development of the discipline of plant ecophysiology and is still a very active research field across nearly all levels of botanical research.

Keywords
Transpiration efficiency; Water use efficiency; Plant ecophysiology; Botanical history

Publication
Brendel, O. The relationship between plant growth and water consumption: a history from the classical four elements to modern stable isotopes. Annals of Forest Science 78, 47 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13595-021-01063-2

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Handling Editor
Andrew Merchant

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