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FOLLOW-UP: How do trees carry water from the soil around their roots to the leaves at the top? Clearly, they are fighting gravity--so how do they do it?

Last week we presented a general outline of how trees lift water. Donald J. Merhaut of Monrovia Nursery Company, headquartered in Azusa, Calif., has provided a more detailed reply:

"Water is often the most limiting factor to plant growth. Therefore, plants have developed an effective system to absorb, translocate, store and utilize water. To understand water transport in plants, one first needs to understand the plants' plumbing. Plants contain a vast network of conduits, which consists of xylem and phloem tissues. This pathway of water and nutrient transport can be compared with the vascular system that transports blood throughout the human body. Like the vascular system in people, the xylem and phloem tissues extend throughout the plant. These conducting tissues start in the roots and transect up through the trunks of trees, branching off into the branches and then branching even further into every leaf.

"The phloem tissue is made of living elongated cells that are connected to one another. Phloem tissue is responsible for translocating nutrients and sugars (carbohydrates), which are produced by the leaves, to areas of the plant that are metabolically active (requiring sugars for energy and growth). The xylem is also composed of elongated cells. Once the cells are formed, they die. But the cell walls still remain intact, and serve as an excellent pipeline to transport water from the roots to the leaves. A single tree will have many xylem tissues, or elements, extending up through the tree. Each typical xylem vessel may only be several microns in diameter.

"The physiology of water uptake and transport is not so complex either. The main driving force of water uptake and transport into a plant is transpiration of water from leaves. Transpiration is the process of water evaporation through specialized openings in the leaves, called stomates. The evaporation creates a negative water vapor pressure develops in the surrounding cells of the leaf. Once this happens, water is pulled into the leaf from the vascular tissue, the xylem, to replace the water that has transpired from the leaf. This pulling of water, or tension, that occurs in the xylem of the leaf, will extend all the way down through the rest of the xylem column of the tree and into the xylem of the roots due to the cohesive forces holding together the water molecules along the sides of the xylem tubing. (Remember, the xylem is a continuous water column that extends from the leaf to the roots.) Finally, the negative water pressure that occurs in the roots will result in an increase of water uptake from the soil.

"Now if transpiration from the leaf decreases, as usually occurs at night or during cloudy weather, the drop in water pressure in the leaf will not be as great, and so there will be a lower demand for water (less tension) placed on the xylem. The loss of water from a leaf (negative water pressure, or a vacuum) is comparable to placing suction to the end of a straw. If the vacuum or suction thus created is great enough, water will rise up through the straw. If you had a very large diameter straw, you would need more suction to lift the water. Likewise, if you had a very narrow straw, less suction would be required. This correlation occurs as a result of the cohesive nature of water along the sides of the straw (the sides of the xylem). Because of the narrow diameter of the xylem tubing, the degree of water tension, (vacuum) required to drive water up through the xylem can be easily attained through normal transpiration rates that often occur in leaves."

Alan Dickman is curriculum director in the biology department at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He offers the following answer to this oft-asked question:

"Once inside the cells of the root, water enters into a system of interconnected cells that make up the wood of the tree and extend from the roots through the stem and branches and into the leaves. The scientific name for wood tissue is xylem; it consists of a few different kinds of cells. The cells that conduct water (along with dissolved mineral nutrients) are long and narrow and are no longer alive when they function in water transport. Some of them have open holes at their tops and bottoms and are stacked more or less like concrete sewer pipes. Other cells taper at their ends and have no complete holes. All have pits in their cell walls, however, through which water can pass. Water moves from one cell to the next when there is a pressure difference between the two.

"Because these cells are dead, they cannot be actively involved in pumping water. It might seem possible that living cells in the roots could generate high pressure in the root cells, and to a limited extent this process does occur. But common experience tells us that water within the wood is not under positive pressure--in fact, it is under negative pressure, or suction. To convince yourself of this, consider what happens when a tree is cut or when a hole is drilled into the stem. If there were positive pressure in the stem, you would expect a stream of water to come out, which rarely happens.

"In reality, the suction that exists within the water-conducting cells arises from the evaporation of water molecules from the leaves. Each water molecule has both positive and negative electrically charged parts. As a result, water molecules tend to stick to one another; that adhesion is why water forms rounded droplets on a smooth surface and does not spread out into a completely flat film. As one water molecule evaporates through a pore in a leaf, it exerts a small pull on adjacent water molecules, reducing the pressure in the water-conducting cells of the leaf and drawing water from adjacent cells. This chain of water molecules extends all the way from the leaves down to the roots and even extends out from the roots into the soil. So the simple answer to the question about what propels water from the roots to the leaves is that the sun's energy does it: heat from the sun causes the water to evaporate, setting the water chain in motion."

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