Environmental physiology

Ecophysiology (from Greek οἶκος, oikos, "house(hold)"; φύσις, physis, "nature, origin"; and -λογία, -logia) or environmental physiology is a biological discipline which studies the adaptation of an organism's physiology to environmental conditions. It is closely related to comparative physiology and evolutionary physiology.


Further information: Plant perception (physiology) and Plant stress measurement

Plant ecophysiology is concerned largely with two topics: mechanisms (how plants sense and respond to environmental change) and scaling or integration (how the responses to highly variable conditions—for example, gradients from full sunlight to 95% shade within tree canopies—are coordinated with one another, and how their collective effect on plant growth and gas exchange can be understood on this basis.

In many cases, animals are able to escape unfavourable and changing environmental factors such as heat, cold, drought or floods, while plants are unable to move away and therefore must endure the adverse conditions or perish (animals go places, plants grow places). Plants are therefore phenotypically plastic and have an impressive array of genes which aid in adapting to changing conditions. It is hypothesized that this large number of genes can be partly explained by plant species' need to adapt to a wider range of conditions.


As with most abiotic factors, light intensity (irradiance) can be both suboptimal and excessive. Light intensity is also an important component in determining the temperature of plant organs (energy budget).The light response curve of net photosynthesis (PI curve) is particularly useful in characterising a plants tolerance to different light intensities.

Suboptimal light (shade) typically occurs at the base of a plant canopy or in an understory environment. Shade tolerant plants have a range of adaptations to help them survive the altered quantity and quality of light typical of shade environments.

Excess light occurs at the top of canopies and on open ground when cloud cover is low and the sun's zenith angle is low, typically this occurs in the tropics and at high altitudes. Excess light incident on a leaf can result in photoinhibition and photodestruction. Plants adapted to high light environments have a range of adaptations to avoid or dissipate the excess light energy, as well as mechanisms that reduce the amount of injury caused.


In response to extremes of temperature plants can produce various proteins. These protect them from the damaging effects of ice formation and falling rates of enzyme catalysis at low temperatures, and from enzyme denaturation and increased photorespiration at high temperatures. As temperatures fall, production of antifreeze proteins and dehydrins increases. As temperatures rise, production of heat shock proteins increases. Metabolic imbalances associated with temperature extremes result in the build-up of reactive oxygen species, which can be countered by antioxidant systems. Cell membranes are also affected by changes in temperature and can cause the membrane to lose its fluid properties and become a gel in cold conditions or to become leaky in hot conditions. This can affect the movement of compounds across the membrane. To prevent these changes, plants can change the composition of their membranes. In cold conditions more unsaturated fatty acids are placed in the membrane and in hot conditions more saturated fatty acids are inserted.

Plants can avoid overheating by minimising the amount of sunlight absorbed and by enhancing the cooling effects of wind and transpiration. Plants can reduce light absorption using reflective leaf hairs, scales and waxes. These features are so common in warm dry regions that these habitats can be seen to form a ‘silvery landscape’ as the light scatters off the canopies.[1] Some species, such as Macroptilium purpureum, can move their leaves throughout the day so that they are always orientated to avoid the sun (paraheliotropism).[2] Knowledge of these mechanisms has been key to breeding for heat stress tolerance in agricultural plants.

Plants can avoid the full impact of low temperature by altering their microclimate. For example, Raoulia plants found in the uplands of New Zealand are said to resemble ‘vegetable sheep’ as they form tight cushion-like clumps to insulate the most vulnerable plant parts and shield them from cooling winds. The same principle has been applied in agriculture by using plastic mulch to insulate the growing points of crops in cool climates in order to boost plant growth.[3]


Too much or too little water can damage plants. If there is too little water then tissues will dehydrate and the plant may die. If the soil becomes waterlogged then the soil will become anoxic (low in oxygen) which can kill the roots of the plant.

The ability of plants to access water depends on the structure of their roots and on the water potential of the root cells. When soil water content is low, plants can alter their water potential to maintain a flow of water into the roots and up to the leaves (Soil plant atmosphere continuum). This remarkable mechanism allows plants to lift water as high as 120 m by harnessing the gradient created by transpiration from the leaves.[4]

In very dry soil, plants close their stomata to reduce transpiration and prevent water loss. The closing of the stomata is often mediated by chemical signals from the root (i.e. abscisic acid). In irrigated fields, the fact that plants close their stomata in response to drying of the roots can be exploited to ‘trick’ plants into using less water without reducing yields (see partial rootzone drying). The use of this technique was largely developed by Dr Peter Dry and colleagues in Australia[5][6] (see nominative determinism).

If drought continues the plant tissues will dehydrate resulting in a loss of turgor pressure that is visible as wilting. As well as closing their stomata, most plants can also respond to drought by altering their water potential (osmotic adjustment) and increasing root growth. Plants that are adapted to dry environments (Xerophytes) have a range of more specialized mechanisms to maintain water and/or protect tissues when desiccation occurs.

Waterlogging reduces the supply of oxygen to the roots and can kill a plant within days. Plants can’t avoid waterlogging but many species overcome the lack of oxygen in the soil by transporting oxygen to the root from tissues that are not submerged. Species that are tolerant of waterlogging develop specialised roots near the soil surface and aerenchyma to allow the diffusion of oxygen from the shoot to the root. Roots that are not killed outright may also switch to less oxygen-hungry forms of cellular respiration.[7] Species that are frequently submerged have evolved more elaborate mechanisms that maintain root oxygen levels, perhaps most notable are the dramatic aerial roots seen in Mangrove forests.

Unfortunately for many terminally overwatered houseplants, the initial symptoms of waterlogging can resemble those due to drought. This is particularly true for flood-sensitive plants that show drooping of their leaves due to epinasty (rather than wilting).

CO2 concentration

CO2 is vital for plant growth as it is the substrate for photosynthesis. Plants take in CO2 through stomatal pores on their leaves. At the same time as CO2 enters the stomata, moisture escapes. This trade-off between CO2 gain and water loss is central to plant productivity. The trade-off is all the more critical as Rubisco, the enzyme used to capture CO2, is only efficient when there is a high concentration of CO2 in the leaf. Some plants overcome this difficulty by concentrating CO2 within their leaves using C4 carbon fixation or Crassulacean acid metabolism. However, most species used C3 carbon fixation and must open their stomata to take in CO2 whenever photosynthesis is taking place. runaway climate change.


The main impact of wind on plants is through its influence on the canopy, which in turn influences the way leaves regulate moisture, heat and carbon dioxide. When no wind is present, a layer of still air builds up around each leaf. This is known as the boundary layer and effectively insulates the leaf from the environment, providing an atmosphere rich in moisture and less prone to convective heating or cooling. As wind speed increases the leaf environment becomes more closely linked to the surrounding environment. It may become difficult for the plant to retain moisture as it is exposed to dry air. On the other hand, a moderately high wind allows the plant to cool its leaves more easily when exposed to full sunlight. Plants are not entirely passive in their interaction with wind. Plants can make their leaves less vulnerable to changes in wind speed, by coating their leaves in fine hairs (trichomes) to break up the air flow and increase the boundary layer. In fact, leaf and canopy dimensions are often finely controlled to manipulate the boundary layer depending on the prevailing environmental conditions.[13]

In areas where very strong winds are common, plants respond by reducing their above ground growth (known as dwarfing) and by strengthening their stems. Trees have a particularly well developed capacity to reinforce their trunks when exposed to wind. In the 1960s, this realisation prompted arboriculturalists in the UK to move away from the practice of staking young amenity trees to offer artificial support.[14] In the most extreme cases, plants can be mortally damaged or uprooted by wind. This is a particular problem for agriculture in hurricane-prone regions, such as the banana growing Windward Islands in the Caribbean.[15] When this type of disturbance occurs in natural systems, the only solution is to ensure that there is an adequate stock of seeds or seedlings to quickly take the place of the mature plants that have been lost- although, in many cases a successional stage will be needed before the ecosystem can be restored to its former state.



The environment can have major influences on human physiology. Environmental effects on human physiology are numerous; one of the most carefully studied effects is the alterations in thermoregulation in the body due to outside stresses. This is necessary because in order for enzymes to function, blood to flow, and for various body organs to operate, temperature must remain at consistent, balanced levels.


To achieve this, the body alters three main things to achieve a constant, normal body temperature:

The hypothalamus plays an important role in thermoregulation. It connects to thermal receptors in the dermis, and detects changes in surrounding blood to make decisions of whether to stimulate internal heat production, or to stimulate evaporation.

There are two main types of stresses that can be experienced due to extreme, environmental temperatures; heat stress and cold stress.

Heat stress is physiologically combated in four ways: radiation, conduction, convection, and evaporation. Cold stress is physiologically combated by shivering, accumulation of body fat, circulatory adaptations (that provide an efficient transfer of heat to the epidermis), and increased blood flow to the extremities.

There is one part of the body fully equipped to deal with cold stress. The respiratory system protects itself against damage by warming the incoming air to 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit before it reaches the bronchi. This means that not even the most frigid of temperatures can damage the respiratory tract.

In both types of temperature related stress, it is important to remain well hydrated. Hydration reduces cardiovascular strain, enhances the ability of energy processes to occur, and reduces feelings of exhaustion.


Extreme temperatures are not the only obstacles that humans face. High altitudes also pose serious physiological challenges on the body. Some of these effects are reduced arterial P02, the rebalancing of the acid-base content in body fluids, increased hemoglobin, increased RBC synthesis, enhanced circulation, and increased levels of the glycolysis byproduct 2,3 diphosphoglycerate which promotes off-loading of O2 by hemoglobin in the hypoxic tissues.

Environmental factors can play a huge role in the human body's fight for homeostasis. Fortunately, humans have found ways to adapt, both physiologically and tangibly.


George A. Bartholomew (1919–2006) was a founder of animal physiological ecology. He served on the faculty at UCLA from 1947 to 1989, and almost 1,200 individuals can trace their academic lineages to him.[16] Knut Schmidt-Nielsen (1915–2007) was also an important contributor to this specific scientific field as well as comparative physiology.

Hermann Rahn (1912–1990) was an early leader in the field of environmental physiology. Starting out in the field of zoology with a PhD from University of Rochester (1933), Rahn began teaching physiology at the University of Rochester in 1941. It was there that he partnered with Wallace O. Fenn to publish A Graphical Analysis of the Respiratory Gas Exchange in 1955. This paper included the landmark O2-CO2 diagram, which formed basis for much of Rahn's future work. Rahn's research into applications of this diagram lead to the development of aerospace medicine and advancements in hyperbaric breathing and high-altitude respiration. Rahn later joined the University at Buffalo in 1956 as the Lawrence D. Bell Professor and Chairman of the Department of Physiology. As Chairman, Rahn surrounded himself with outstanding faculty and made the University an international research center in environmental physiology.

See also

Ecology portal
Biology portal
Environment portal


Further reading

  • Spicer, J. I., and K. J. Gaston. 1999. Physiological diversity and its ecological implications. Blackwell Science, Oxford, U.K. x + 241 pp.
  • . Definitions and Opinions by: G. A. Bartholomew, A. F. Bennett, W. D. Billings, B. F. Chabot, D. M. Gates, B. Heinrich, R. B. Huey, D. H. Janzen, J. R. King, P. A. McClure, B. K. McNab, P. C. Miller, P. S. Nobel, B. R. Strain.
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and USA.gov, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for USA.gov and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.