Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Leaves Suck!

We have talked about the reactions of photosynthesis
before. Basically, the plant uses the energy of the sun to
fix carbon (change it from gas to solid) by adding water
to it chemically. Then it splits them again to make energy.
In previous posts we have talked about photosynthesis – carbohydrates and made from carbon (carbo-) with water added (-hydrate, as in- when you are very thirsty, you are dehydrated). Therefore, the leaves must have a constant and reliable source of carbon (from carbon dioxide in the air) and water.

Question of the day:
How do trees move the water up into their leaves, against the force of gravity, in order to carry out photosynthesis?

Water is quite massive (1kg/L or 8.3 pounds/gallon), and a mature oak tree needs 40-60 gallons of water every day. So how does this huge amount of water get to the top of the tree? Does it travel there from someplace else? Could it be absorbed by the leaf from the air in the same way carbon dioxide is brought in? Or maybe plants don’t have to drink and they use the water they make during metabolism, like the kangaroo rat we talked about last year -they don’t drink at all and seem to get along just fine.

We might be able to eliminate one possible explanation right away – what happens when you don’t water your houseplants? Do they grow or do they die? So do you think most plants need a source of external water or could get along on the water they make during aerobic respiration? Right… I think we are down to absorption or movement from some other place on the plant, namely the roots.

Keep in mind that not every plant has to move water from its roots to its leaves, take the bromeliads for instance. Many of these plants don’t have roots, we have discussed how they have special structures that help them absorb water at the base of their leaves.

You could test other types of plants to see if water on just the leaves is enough to keep them alive. How might you do that? Cover the dirt with something that repels water and then just mist the leaves – that might do it. Try it for a while and see how the plants do.

I think that you will find that they do not thrive after the moisture in the dirt is used up. For most plants, 99% or more of the water they use must be absorbed by the roots and transported up the stem (trunk if it is a tree) to the leaves.

Celery stalks and carnations are good to show the flow
of water against gravity. Dark colors show up better.
Maybe you could have races between the two plants and
then cut them crosswise to look at the size of the vessels.
I bet the smaller ones move water faster.
To model the answer to our question of the day all you need is a straw. But that isn’t very illustrative or fancy – so how about cut carnation stems or celery stalks (with the leaves) in a glass of colored water. Lighter colored flowers and darker colored water works best (I use blue food coloring), but I have had students who have really gotten into this and tried to measure the time by adding one color, then switching to another and seeing how long it takes the color to change in the flower and if all the color is lost along with the water.

Over a couple of days, the color will indeed be drawn into the petals of the flower. How does the color get there? Is the water level the same? Water is moving up and taking dye with it. So you can see that it does happen – but this still doesn’t explain HOW it happens. Hint - it isn't capillary action. Even in a very thin capillary tube, water will only move up a few centimeters. How could it possible move from the roots to the top of a redwood tree?

To answer this, you might ask what happens to the water that is being drawn up into the leaves (and flowers of the carnation model). Try putting a baggie over the end of a tree branch and tying it tight.  You will see condensation develop over a day or so. Where did this water come from?

Here are the vessels in a tree. 1) pith – it gets crushed as the tree grows 
2&3) annual growth rings made of water carrying xylem. Why 
do you see different rings if they are all xylem? Because spring 
xylem vessels are big, and summer xylem (less water available, so
less growth) vessels are smaller. The line is the change from 
small to big. 6) phloem – this is what carries the carbohydrate to 
the roots and other parts of the tree.
The answer is a process called transpiration (or evapotranspiration). The water evaporates from the leaves, out of pores called stomates, and this creates a negative pressure – like the negative pressure in your mouth when you suck on a straw. This negative pressure actually pulls water up from the roots through the xylem of the plant, to the leaves. In the case of the carnation flower or celery, it also pulled up the very small dye molecules in the water. This evaporative force is quite strong, but not strong enough on its own to lift that 350-500 lb.s (40-60 gallons) needed for an oak tree each day.

The water itself helps in the process. Water is a social molecule, it likes to stick to itself and to other things. It will climb up the sides of container, just look at the meniscus formed in a narrow graduated cylinder when water is added, or note how water travels up a thin capillary tube.

The capillary action comes from the water’s cohesive force, and helps the tree stay hydrated. Evapotranspiration’s negative pressure pulling water up is combined with water’s ability to climb up, and together this is enough to keep the tree’s leaves in the pink, no matter how tall it grows.

But like everything else, there are exceptions, like the plants that don’t have xylem. The non-vascular plants (like mosses and hornworts) only survive based on water absorption and capillary movement from cell to cell. Therefore, they cannot be very tall; you need vessels (xylem) to allow water movement and tall growth. The tallest of the non-vascular plants, the Polytrichum mosses, may get to be two feet tall, but that’s it.

Evapotranspiration via vasculature and leaf stomates leads to another question – if water is being lost through the leaves all the time, doesn’t this hurt the plant in times of drought. Well… yes. But plants have evolved some pretty neat tricks to help out.

Some plants don’t use the most forward strategy of
photosynthesis because it would drain them of all their
water during the hottest weather. CAM plants can close
their stomates during the day and only fix carbon dioxide
at night when it is cooler. We should probably talk about
these plants in more detail later this year, they have some
mighty cool adaptations.
1) Stomates can open and close to regulate water loss. Some plants can close their stomata completely during the hot day, and save their built up radiate energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates only at night, when they will lose less water. Cacti are a good example of this.

2) Leaves, especially the sun-exposed sides of leaves, are covered with a waxy substance called cuticle that greatly reduces the loss of water by diffusion through the cell wall. If water were allowed to travel through the cell membrane and wall, then it would evaporate and set up a negative osmotic and evaporative pressure that would quickly dehydrate every surface cell.

3) Here's a trick many people don’t really consider – many plants have two types of leaves! You might be able to find a tree or two with which to investigate this.

Big leaves have large surface area, so more water will be lost as compared to smaller leaves. Leaves in the direct sunlight should be structured in order to carry out the most photosynthesis, but if they are small, how can this be maximized?

Many trees have sun leaves and shade leaves. Sun leaves are smaller, thicker, have more stomata, and are located where the direct sunlight hits the tree during a good portion of the day.  Shade leaves are bigger, thinner, and have fewer stomates to reduce water loss.

Sun leaves have more layers of pallisade cells, the cells that have the most chlorophyll and do most of the photosynthesis. They are located at the ends of branches, especially on the north side, and on the crown (top) of the tree.

Sun leaves are a smaller and thicker, and they often have
fewer in and outs in their shapes. The smaller shape
reduces water loss, the thicker body provides extra layers
of cells for photosynthesis, the reduced number of cuts
and points…. I have no idea. It is a continuum, leaves that
get a good amount of light land somewhere in the middle.
Shade leaves have to rely on lower levels of sunlight (they are in the shade), so they have even higher concentrations of chlorophyll than sun leaves, although they are thinner. They can process light more efficiently than sun leaves, so they are actually very important to the plant despite their little time in the sun.

Look at the trees around you, do some have large leave on inner branches and lower on the canopy, while having smaller leaves on top or on the ends? These are probably shade tolerant trees. They have developed the ability to still do enough photosynthesis despite low levels of light.

On the other hand, do you see a tree that has just one size of leaf (not including newly formed leaves) and only has leaves on the ends of the branches? This is probably a shade intolerant tree.

The conifers are an interesting exception, some are shade tolerant, usually the firs, while others are shade intolerant, mostly the pines. However, neither type has sun leaves and shade leaves. Their shade tolerance has more to do with their branch geometry and ability to allow just about all their leaves (needles) see the same amount of sunlight.

Next  week, we will ask if there is any limit to interspecies mating, can you cross a cat with a dog? 

von Caemmerer, S., & Baker, N. (2006). The Biology of Transpiration. From Guard Cells to Globe PLANT PHYSIOLOGY, 143 (1), 3-3 DOI: 10.1104/pp.104.900213

Terashima, I. (2005). Irradiance and phenotype: comparative eco-development of sun and shade leaves in relation to photosynthetic CO2 diffusion Journal of Experimental Botany, 57 (2), 343-354 DOI: 10.1093/jxb/erj014