Book Review: Physiological

Plant Ecophysiology. Prasad, M.N.V. 1997. ISBN 0-471-13157-1(cloth US$89.95) 542pp. John Wiley & Sons, 605 Third Ave., New York NY 10158.
- The usual problem with edited books is that they lack in coherence, betraying the fact that they have been assembled by asking a variety of people to come up with whatever they could under the general guidelines suggested by the title of the book. "Plant Ecophysiology" is a welcomed partial exception to this pattern. To the credit of the editor, the volume really reads almost as a unified organic whole, and the sequence of chapters actually makes sense.

Mind you, this is not the kind of book you would necessarily read from beginning to end. On the other hand, it does represent a very convenient and well organized compendium of recent research in the general field of plant ecological physiology (or physiological ecology, depending on where you would rather put the emphasis). The volume is divided in two major parts, the first one on natural abiotic factors influencing plant growth and performance, the second one concerned with anthropogenic biotic factors. I guess my major discomfort with the whole enterprise is actually due to this bizarre subdivision. Why is it that abiotic factors are natural, and biotic factors are anthropogenic? Ever heard of intra- and inter-specific competition, anyone?

Be as it may, I think there is a marked difference in the quality and interest of the two parts of the volume, with the human-centered portion being on the loosing side (but then again, I tend to be attracted to "basic" research, so I must confess a bias to begin with). The first part of "Plant Ecophysiology" is made of eight chapters exploring the influences on plant life of an important, albeit incomplete, series of abiotic factors. Two chapters are devoted to light, one in general to different aspects of light perception and availability, the second one specifically to UV-B radiation. The following two chapters are concerned with temperature, the first one on the effects of chilling and freezing, the second one on the response to high temperature. We then have three chapters about water: response to drought conditions, to flooding, and to salt stress. The concluding contribution deals with trace metals and the evolution of resistance to extreme heavy metals abundance. The overall theme underlying these writings is to span the whole gamut between the effects that a particular environmental challenge has at the phenotypic level down to the types of physiological reactions the plant puts into place to minimize the abiotic stress, and finally to the molecular mechanisms underlying such physiological responses. This is an emerging trend in modern biology, whereby previously disparate and almost independent disciplines such as molecular biology, physiology, anatomy, and recently even evolutionary biology, contribute to each other and toward the common goal of a better understanding of the functioning of living organisms. This approach is taken in a remarkable even fashion throughout the first part of the book, and makes each chapter a fascinating and useful introduction to a large field of active investigation. I gladly advised a couple of my students who are beginning to shop around for a thesis project to dwell into some of the chapters on abiotic factors.

The story, as I mentioned before, is a bit different for the second part of the volume, dedicated to anthropogenic influences. This is constituted of seven chapters, dealing with allelochemicals, herbicides, polyamines, air pollutants, carbon dioxide, radionuclides, and fire. The tone and structure of these contributions is more uneven. Some are written in a style and with a level of content close to those making up the first part of the volume, and this results in equally compelling introductions to applied fields of research at the plant-human interface. Others, on the other hand, seem more suitable for basic textbooks in plant physiology. For example, I wonder if this is really the most appropriate place for diagrams of the photosynthetic reactions, or for an illustration of the Calvin cycle. Would it not be a better use of space and of the readerís time if the authors would assume such basic knowledge as given and refer the few readers who might need it to introductory texts?

On a different topic, one of the clear advantages of this kind of volume is that it provides the reader with a comprehensive and fairly recent bibliography, extremely useful as a starting point to dig in deeper. Well, there are two problems here, as far as "Plant Ecophysiology" is concerned. First the most recent references are from 1994 (with very few exceptions, usually cited as "in press"), even though the book is dated 1997. It seems that one last round of updates before publication would have been de rigoeur. On top of that, most of the citations are actually for the 1980s, not the 1990s. Far from me the thought of denying the importance of "classic" papers; but, especially given the emphasis on the very recent convergent of molecular and organismal biology, I would have expected a different ratio between older and newer literature citations. The second problem with the references is that there are no titles for the papers cited. This used to be a common practice, and it obviously saves space, but it is a practice that is being abandoned by all the major journals, and for good reasons. Todayís research is a busy activity, with little time to be spared for anything. Knowing the title of a paper might make the difference between going to the library to get it or not, since sometimes the simple context of the citation is not enough to give an idea of the specific value of that paper for the reader.

Overall, "Plant Ecophysiology" is certainly a book which will be useful to anybody interested in plants reactions to environmental challenges, be that from the molecular, physiological, or ecological standpoint. A more coherent, single (or few) author book on the topic, attempting an organic synthesis of the field around ideas instead of topics, would certainly be at least equally welcome. - Massimo Pigliucci, Departments of Botany and of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN

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