Xylem: Differentiation, Water Transport and Ecology

Abstract

The xylem constitutes the part of plant vascular system which is primarily concerned with the long‐distance transport of water, dissolved minerals and signalling molecules from root to shoot. The development of xylem during tissue differentiation and organ growth is governed in particular by auxins and cytokinins. The mode of transport in xylem is bulk flow, driven by hydrostatic pressure gradients between root and shoot. These gradients involve substantial negative pressures (xylem tensions) during daytime transpiration. As xylem tension increases, so does the possibility of embolism and xylem dysfunction, particularly when water supply is sparse, unless embolism is repaired. The evolution of xylem reflects a combination of demands: optimising the volume flow rate, optimising control over xylem sap composition and minimising the chance of xylem dysfunction through embolism. Strategies to meet these often conflicting demands are reflected through differences in xylem anatomy between species which differ in their ecology.

Key Concepts

  • A key innovation during the evolution of plants was the development of a long‐distance, ‘vascular’, transport system.
  • The mode of long‐distance transport of substances is bulk flow.
  • Bulk flow is driven by gradients in hydrostatic pressure.
  • The xylem constitutes the part of vascular system which is primarily concerned with the transport of substances, including water, between root and shoot.
  • The xylem is made up of cells which are dead at full maturity and fulfil a transport (xylem vessels, tracheids) and mechanical support (fibres) role and cells which are alive and provide metabolic activity (xylem parenchyma).
  • Development of xylem starts from procambial and cambial cells and is governed by auxin and also cytokinins.
  • Daytime transpiration is associated with significant negative pressures (tensions) in xylem; this increases the chance of embolism and (partial) loss of function of xylem.
  • The structural design of xylem of plant species, which differ in their taxonomy and ecology, often reflects differences in the transpirational demand (water flux rates), water availability (and associated likeliness of embolism formation) and soil solution composition (and need to control xylem sap composition) encountered by these species.

Keywords: auxin; bulk flow; embolism; hydrostatic pressure gradient; pit membrane; tension; tracheid; xylem vessel

Figure 1. Diffusion as a mode of transport in biological systems is fast enough to get substances from A to B over short distances, but is too slow to transport substances over longer distances. The time (T1/2) it takes for half of a given species of molecules to move from A to B by diffusion down their gradient in free energy is given through ‘T1/2 = 0.357 × (1/Dj) × ΔX’, whereby Dj is the diffusion coefficient of substance [here: potassium ion in water (being cotransported with chloride ion for electroneutrality), 1.9 × 10−9 m2 s−1], and ΔX is the physical distance in meters between A and B (Nobel, ).
Figure 2. An overview of the occurrence and nature of hydrostatic pressure gradients in the vascular system of plants. Ψ, water potential.
Figure 3. Pipe diameter has a larger‐than expected (based on visual impression) influence on volume flow rate. The rate of water flow through a pipe can be calculated according to Hagen–Poiseuille's Law. For a tube/pipe of given length ‘ΔX’, and pressure difference ‘ΔP’ acting across the tube (from end to end), the volume flow rate ‘VFR’ increases with the fourth power of radius ‘r’ of that pipe; π is about 3.14. In the example shown here, the flow rate through two pipes (r = 10 µm and r = 50 µm), whose radius differs by factor 5, and which are each 200 µm long and subjected to a hydrostatic pressure difference of 0.1 MPa, is calculated. The difference in flow rate between the two pipes is (54) 625‐fold. If we packed 20 of the smaller pipes into a cross‐sectional area equivalent to that of the larger pipe, the difference in flow rate would still amount to 31‐fold. Thus, forming one large xylem vessel per available cross‐sectional area in, for example a root, is a much more efficient use of space in terms of long‐distance water transport compared with forming 20 smaller vessels. The downside, though, is that if the one large vessel becomes dysfunctional, 100% of transport capacity is lost, whereas the dysfunction of one smaller vessel leads to the loss of only 5% of transport capacity.
Figure 4. An overview of some basic challenges faced for the design of xylem and phloem during plant evolution, together with some solutions to master these challenges; PM, plasma membrane.
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Fricke, Wieland(Jan 2017) Xylem: Differentiation, Water Transport and Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0002076.pub2]