A critical question in ultraviolet-B radiation research is how different portions of the solar spectrum influence plant UV B sensitivity. Field-grown plants show only subtle responses to supplemental UV-B radiation in many aspects of growth, yet plants grown under low visible light (as in most growth chambers and greenhouses) show much more discernible changes. Here we assess a specific aspect of UV-B sensitivity in plants grown under lower PAR: when one maintains a constant proportion of UV-B to PAR, but different absolute irradiance levels, does plant sensitivity to UV-B change? We conducted field experiments at near-ambient PAR and enhanced UV-B, and also with reduced irradiance in both wavebands, on three species. Each of these species occurs in both open and shaded habitats. We found the grass Setaria viridis sensitive to UV-B radiation only when grown at lower irradiances, while the forb Geranium viscosissimum was only sensitive to UV-B at the higher irradiances. In the grass Elymus glaucus, UV-B sensitivity did not appear to be influenced by the irradiance levels. Species appear to respond differently to these changes in irradiance levels, and an array of physiological and anatomical mechanisms are likely involved.
Many experiments examining plant responses to enhanced UV-B radiation simply compare an enhanced UV-B radiation treatment with ambient UV-B (or no UV-B in most greenhouse and controlled environment studies). However, some experiments utilize multiple doses of UV-B radiation. A number of different techniques have been used to adjust the UV dose, each with advantages and disadvantages. One common technique is to place racks of fluorescent UV-B lamps at different heights above the plant canopy. A generally ignored consequence of this technique is that the pattern of shade which plants receive from the lamps is distributed differently over the course of the day at different lamp heights. To determine the effects of using lamps at different heights above the canopy, we grew three species (canola, sunflower, and maize) in the greenhouse under racks of unenergized lamps that were placed at two different heights above the plant canopy. Many plant growth characteristics differed between plants grown under the two lamp heights. These differences can potentially enhance or obscure true UV-B effects. Even more troubling is that changes in leaf mass per foliage area, which were observed in this experiment, could contribute to differences in plant UV-B sensitivity. We recommend the use of other techniques for achieving multiple doses of UV-B radiation. These range from simple and inexpensive approaches (wrapping individual fluorescent tubes in different layers of a neutral density filter such as cheese cloth) to more technical and expensive alternatives (electronically modulated lamp control systems). These choices should be determined by the goals of the particular experiment.