Plant Nutrition

Plant Nutrition is the study of the chemical elements that are necessary for growth. In 1972, E. Epstein defined 2 criteria for an element to be essential for plant growth:

  1. in its absence the plant is unable to complete a normal life cycle or
  2. that the element is part of some essential plant constituent or metabolite,

this is all in accordance with Liebig's law of the minimum. There are 17 essential plant nutrients. Carbon and oxygen are absorbed from the air, while other nutrients including water are obtained from the soil. Plants must obtain the following mineral nutrients from the growing media:

  • the primary macronutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K)
  • the three secondary macronutrients: calcium (Ca), sulphur (S), magnesium (Mg)
  • the macronutrient Silicon (Si)
  • the micronutrients/trace minerals: boron (B), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), iron (Fe), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), selenium (Se), and sodium (Na)

The macronutrients are consumed in larger quantities and are present in plant tissue in quantities from 0.2% to 4.0% (on a dry matter weight basis). Micro nutrients are present in plant tissue in quantities measured in parts per million, ranging from 5 to 200 ppm, or less than 0.02% dry weight.

Most soil conditions across the world can provide plants with adequate nutrition and do not require fertilizer for a complete life cycle. However, man can artificially modify soil through the addition of fertilizer to promote vigorous growth and increase yield. The plants are able to obtain their required nutrients from the fertilizer added to the soil. A colloidal carbonaceous residue, known as humus, can serve as a nutrient reservoir. Besides lack of water and sunshine, nutrient deficiency is a major growth limiting factor.

Nutrient uptake in the soil is achieved by cation exchange, where root hairs pump hydrogen ions (H+) into the soil through proton pumps. These hydrogen ions displace cations attached to negatively charged soil particles so that the cations are available for uptake by the root.

Plant nutrition is a difficult subject to understand completely, partially because of the variation between different plants and even between different species or individuals of a given clone. An element present at a low level may cause deficiency symptoms, while the same element at a higher level may cause toxicity. Further, deficiency of one element may present as symptoms of toxicity from another element. An abundance of one nutrient may cause a deficiency of another nutrient. Also a lowered availability of a given nutrient, such as SO2−4 can affect the uptake of another nutrient, such as NO3–. Also, K+ uptake can be influenced by the amount NH4+ available.

The root, especially the root hair, is the most essential organ for the uptake of nutrients. The structure and architecture of the root can alter the rate of nutrient uptake. Nutrient ions are transported to the center of the root, the stele in order for the nutrients to reach the conducting tissues, xylem and phloem. The Casparian strip, a cell wall outside of the stele but within the root, prevents passive flow of water and nutrients to help regulate the uptake of nutrients and water. Xylem moves water and inorganic molecules within the plant and phloem counts organic molecule transportation. Water potential plays a key role in a plants nutrient uptake. If the water potential is more negative within the plant than the surrounding soils, the nutrients will move from the more higher solute (soil) concentration to lower solute concentration (plant).

There are 3 fundamental ways plants uptake nutrients through the root: 1.) simple diffusion, occurs when a nonpolar molecule, such as O2, CO2, and NH3 that follow a concentration gradient, can passively move through the lipid bilayer membrane without the use of transport proteins. 2.) facilitated diffusion, is the rapid movement of solutes or ions following a concentration gradient, facilitated by transport proteins. 3.) Active transport, is the active transport of ions or molecules against a concentration gradient that requires an energy source, usually ATP, to pump the ions or molecules through the membrane.

  • Nutrients are moved inside a plant to where they are most needed. For example, a plant will try to supply more nutrients to its younger leaves than its older ones. So when nutrients are mobile, the lack of nutrients is first visible on older leaves. However, not all nutrients are equally mobile. When a less mobile nutrient is lacking, the younger leaves suffer because the nutrient does not move up to them but stays lower in the older leaves. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are mobile nutrients, while the others have varying degrees of mobility. This phenomenon is helpful in determining what nutrients a plant may be lacking.

A symbiotic relationship may exist with 1.) Nitrogen-fixing bacteria, like rhizobia which are involved with nitrogen fixation, and 2.) mycorrhiza, which help to create a larger root surface area. Both of these mutualistic relationships enhance nutrient uptake.

Though nitrogen is plentiful in the Earth's atmosphere, relatively few plants engage in nitrogen fixation (conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a biologically useful form). Most plants therefore require nitrogen compounds to be present in the soil in which they grow. These can either be supplied by decaying matter, nitrogen fixing bacteria, animal waste, or through the agricultural application of purpose made fertilizers.

Hydroponics, is growing plants in a water-nutrient solution without the use of nutrient-rich soil. It allows researchers and home gardeners to grow their plants in a controlled environment. The most common solution, is the Hoagland solution, developed by D. R. Hoagland in 1933, the solution consists of all the essential nutrients in the correct proportions necessary for most plant growth. An aerator is used to prevent an anoxic event or hypoxia. Hypoxia can affect nutrient uptake of a plant because without oxygen present, respiration becomes inhibited within the root cells. The Nutrient film technique is a variation of hydroponic technique. The roots are not fully submerged which allows for adequate aeration of the roots, while a "film" thin layer of nutrient rich water is pumped through the system to provide nutrients and water to the plant.

Read more about Plant Nutrition:  Processes, Functions of Nutrients

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