Xylem - Main Function – Upwards Water Transport

Main Function – Upwards Water Transport

The xylem transports water and soluble mineral nutrients from the roots throughout the plant. It is also used to replace water lost during transpiration and photosynthesis. Xylem sap consists mainly of water and inorganic ions, although it can contain a number of organic chemicals as well. This transport is not powered by energy spent by the tracheary elements themselves, which are dead by maturity and no longer have living contents. Two phenomena cause xylem sap to flow:

  • Transpirational pull: the most important cause of xylem sap flow is the evaporation of water from the surfaces of mesophyll cells to the atmosphere. This transpiration causes millions of minute menisci to form in the mesophyll cell wall. The resulting surface tension causes a negative pressure or tension in the xylem that pulls the water from the roots and soil.
  • Root pressure: If the water potential of the root cells is more negative than that of the soil, usually due to high concentrations of solute, water can move by osmosis into the root from the soil. This causes a positive pressure that forces sap up the xylem towards the leaves. In some circumstances, the sap will be forced from the leaf through a hydathode in a phenomenon known as guttation. Root pressure is highest in the morning before the stomata open and allow transpiration to begin. Different plant species can have different root pressures even in a similar environment; examples include up to 145 kPa in Vitis riparia but around zero in Celastrus orbiculatus.

The primary force that creates the capillary action movement of water upwards in plants is the adhesion between the water and the surface of the xylem conduits. Capillary action provides the force that establishes an equilibrium configuration, balancing gravity. When transpiration removes water at the top, the flow is needed to return to the equilibrium.

Transpirational pull results from the evaporation of water from the surfaces of cells in the leaves. This evaporation causes the surface of the water to recess into the pores of the cell wall. By capillary action, the water forms concave menisci inside the pores. The high surface tension of water pulls the concavity outwards, generating enough force to lift water as high as a hundred meters from ground level to a tree's highest branches.

Transpirational pull requires that the vessels transporting the water are very small in diameter, otherwise cavitation would break the water column. And as water evaporates from leaves, more is drawn up through the plant to replace it. When the water pressure within the xylem reaches extreme levels due to low water input from the roots (if, for example, the soil is dry), then the gases come out of solution and form a bubble – an embolism forms, which will spread quickly to other adjacent cells, unless bordered pits are present (these have a plug-like structure called a torus, that seals off the opening between adjacent cells and stops the embolism from spreading).

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