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Published by Minh Trang Hoang

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Published by: Minh Trang Hoang on Mar 27, 2011
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Most people think leaf loss follows from colder
weather. Yet really, it’s more a matter of light, which
gets scarce and less intense as long summer days
shorten into crisp fall quickies. Even in warmer
climes, deciduous trees tend to lose their leaves as
the summer sun gives way to the harvest moon.

For the trees, the reason is simple: less sunlight means
less photosynthesis, less photosynthesis means less
sugary-sweet food, and less sugary-sweet food means
the party’s over—it’s time to shed the costly costume
(those energy-sapping leaves) and sleep till spring.

There Goes the Sun—
And the Photosynthesis, Too

Trees love their photosynthesis. And what’s not to love?
Given only water and carbon dioxide, green plants
can convert sunlight into chemical energy. The key is
a cool chemical called chlorophyll, which is also the
pigment that makes plants green most of the time.

Chlorophyll molecules in green plants absorb solar
energy, which excites some of their electrons. To
return to their normal energy level (since not even a
molecule is comfortable staying excited forever), the
chlorophyll molecules transfer electrons to nearby
molecules called “electron acceptors,” which pass
the electrons along an electron bucket brigade.

To replace the electrons they’ve donated to these
acceptors, chlorophyll molecules then steal electrons
from nearby water molecules. Such electron larceny
breaks the nearby water apart, producing gaseous
oxygen, hydrogen ions, and a few “free” electrons.
We’re grateful for the oxygen, which is just waste
product to a tree. Trees have more use for the
hydrogen ions and free electrons, which they combine
with carbon dioxide to make carbohydrates.

Other hydrogen ions and electrons join with minerals to
produce amino acids and, ultimately, proteins. The trees
then use the carbohydrates and other organic substances
they’ve produced through photosynthesis to feed their
growth—much as we, in turn, use the carbohydrates and
other good stuff they’ve photosynthesized to feed our
growth (if we remember to eat our fruits and vegetables).

In fact, other than a few bacteria that can survive
on chemical energy from inorganic compounds, all
living things ultimately depend for their sustenance
on the photosynthetic conversion of light energy
into chemical energy. If photosynthesis were to
suddenly stop, we’d all starve: first the plants,
then the animals that eat the plants, then the
animals that eat the animals that eat the plants.

The Life and Liabilities of a Little Leaf

The key players in the literally life-giving photosynthetic
process are chlorophyll, carbon dioxide, water, and
sunlight. Take any of these four players away, and
photosynthesis will cease. And that’s roughly what
happens every fall. As the duration and intensity
of daily sunlight decreases, photosynthesis in the
leaves of deciduous trees slows down, and the leaves
produce less and less of the sugary-sweet food their
trees need to stay healthy and keep growing.

What’s worse, as their productivity drops, the leaves
threaten to become a serious liability for the trees. Since
they’re thin and full of water, leaves are liable to freeze,
potentially damaging the flesh of the trees. Better for the
trees to drop their leaves, go dormant, and wait till the
springtime sun is ready to fire up photosynthesis again.

Once the trees decide to go dormant, the foliage
fireworks begin. The trees have no more reason to
produce gloriously green, sun-sopping chlorophyll.

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