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Transpiration is essential for transporting water and minerals up a plant and results in the loss of water vapour through tiny pores in leaves, called stomata. This process occurs exclusively in xylem vessels which have adapted their structure to facilitate effective water transport.
Transpiration is the evaporation of water from the spongy mesophyll layer in leaves and the loss of water vapour through the stomata. This occurs in xylem vessels, which make up half of the vascular bundle consisting of xylem and phloem. The xylem also carries ions dissolved in water, and this is crucial for plants as they need water for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants absorb light energy and use it to form chemical energy. Below, you will find the word equation and the necessity of water in this process.
As well as providing water for photosynthesis, transpiration also has other functions in the plant. For example, transpiration also helps keep the plant cool. As plants carry out exothermic metabolic reactions, the plant can heat up. Transpiration allows the plant to stay cool by moving water up the plant. As well as this, transpiration helps to keep cells turgid. This helps to maintain structure in the plant and prevent its collapse.
Exothermic reactions release energy - usually in the form of heat energy. The opposite of an exothermic reaction is an endothermic reaction - which absorbs energy. Respiration is an example of an exothermic reaction, so as photosynthesis is the opposite of respiration, photosynthesis is an endothermic reaction.
The ions transported in the xylem vessel are mineral salts. These include Na+, Cl-, K+, Mg2+ and other ions. These ions have different roles in the plant. Mg2+ is used for making chlorophyll in the plant, for example, whilst Cl- is essential in photosynthesis, osmosis and metabolism.
Transpiration refers to the evaporation and loss of water from the leaf's surface, but it also explains how water moves through the rest of the plant in the xylem. When water is lost from the leaves' surface, negative pressure forces water to move up the plant, often referred to as the transpiration pull. This allows water to be transported up the plant with no additional energy required. This means that water transport in the plant through the xylem is a passive process.
Remember, passive processes are processes that do not require energy. The opposite of this is an active process, which requires energy. The transpiration pull creates a negative pressure which essentially ‘sucks’ water up the plant.
Several factors affect the rate of transpiration. These include wind speed, humidity, temperature and light intensity. These factors all interact and work together to determine the rate of transpiration in a plant.
Wind speed affects the concentration gradient for water. Water moves from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration. A high wind speed ensures that there is always a low concentration of water outside of the leaf, which maintains a steep concentration gradient. This allows for a high rate of transpiration.
If there are high levels of humidity, there is a lot of moisture in the air. This decreases the steepness of the concentration gradient, thereby decreasing the transpiration rate.
As temperature increases, the evaporation rate of water from the stomata of the leaf increases, thereby increasing the rate of transpiration.
At low-light levels, the stomata close up, which inhibits evaporation. Inversely, at high-light intensities, the rate of transpiration increases as the stomata remain open for evaporation to occur.
Table 1. The factors that affect the rate of transpiration.
When discussing the effects that these factors have on the rate of transpiration, you must mention whether the factor affects the rate of evaporation of water or the rate of diffusion out of the stomata. Temperature and light intensity affect evaporation rate, whereas humidity and wind speed affect diffusion rate.
There are many adaptations of the xylem vessel that allow them to efficiently transport water and ions up the plant.
Lignin is a waterproof material found on the walls of xylem vessels and is found in different proportions depending on the age of the plant. Here is a summary of what we need to know about lignin;
Lignin is helpful in the process of transpiration too. The negative pressure caused by the loss of water from the leaf is significant enough to push the xylem vessel to collapse. However, the presence of lignin adds structural rigidity to the xylem vessel, preventing the vessel's collapse and allowing transpiration to continue.
There are two different forms of xylem found at various stages of the plant's life cycle. In younger plants, we find protoxylem and in more mature plants, we find metaxylem. These different types of xylem have different compositions, allowing for different growth rates at different stages.
In younger plants, growth is crucial; protoxylem contains less lignin, enabling the plant to grow. This is because lignin is a very rigid structure; too much lignin restricts growth. However, it provides more stability for the plant. In older, more mature plants, we find metaxylem contain more lignin, providing them with a more rigid structure and preventing their collapse.
Lignin creates a balance between supporting the plant and allowing younger plants to grow. This leads to different visible patterns of lignin in plants. Examples of these include spiral and reticulate patterns.
Xylem vessels are not living. The xylem vessel cells are not metabolically active, which allows them to have no cell contents. Having no cell contents allows for more room for water transport in the xylem vessel. This adaptation ensures that water and ions are transported as efficiently as possible.
Additionally, the xylem also has no end walls. This allows for the xylem cells to form one continuous vessel. Without cell walls, the xylem vessel can maintain a constant stream of water, also known as the transpiration stream.
Water can be lost from the plant in more than one area. The stomata and cuticle are the two main areas of water loss in the plant, with water being lost from these two areas in slightly different ways.
Around 85-95% of water loss happens through the stomata, known as stomatal transpiration. The stomata are small openings mostly found on the bottom surface of leaves. These stomata are closely bordered by guard cells. Guard cells control whether the stomata open or close by becoming turgid or plasmolysed. When the guard cells become turgid, they change shape allowing the stomata to open. When they become plasmolysed, they lose water and move closer together, causing the stomata to close.
Some stomata are found on the upper surface of the leaves, but most are located at the bottom.
Plasmolysed guard cells signify that the plant does not have enough water. So, the stomata close to prevent further water loss. Conversely, when the guard cells are turgid, this shows us that the plant has enough water. So, the plant can afford to lose water, and the stomata remain open to allow for transpiration.
Stomatal transpiration only occurs during the day because photosynthesis takes place; carbon dioxide needs to enter the plant via the stomata. At night, photosynthesis does not occur, and therefore, there is no need for carbon dioxide to be entering the plant. So, the plant closes the stomata to prevent water loss.
Cuticular transpiration makes up for around 10% of transpiration in the plant. Cuticular transpiration is transpiration through the cuticles of a plant, which are layers at the top and bottom of the plant that serves a role in preventing water loss, highlighting why transpiration from the cuticle only accounts for around 10% of transpiration.
The extent to which transpiration happens through the cuticles depends on the thickness of the cuticle and whether the cuticle has a waxy layer or not. If a cuticle has a waxy layer, we describe it as a waxy cuticle. Waxy cuticles prevent transpiration from occurring and avoid water loss — the thicker the cuticle, the less transpiration can occur.
When discussing the different factors that affect the rate of transpiration, such as cuticle thickness and the presence of waxy cuticles, we need to consider why plants may have these adaptations or not. Plants that live in arid conditions (xerophytes) with low water availability need to minimise water loss. For this reason, these plants may have thick waxy cuticles with very few stomata on the surfaces of their leaves. On the other hand, plants that live in water (hydrophytes) do not need to minimise water loss. So, these plants will have thin, non-waxy cuticles and could have many stomata on the surfaces of their leaves.
We must understand the differences and similarities between transpiration and translocation. It may be helpful to read our article on translocation to understand this section better. In short, translocation is the two-way active movement of sucrose and other solutes up and down the plant.
Translocation refers to the movement of organic molecules, such as sucrose and amino acids up and down the plant cell. In contrast, transpiration refers to the movement of water up the plant cell. The movement of water around the plant happens at a much slower speed than the movement of sucrose and other solutes around the plant cell.
In our Translocation article, we explain some of the different experiments that scientists have used to compare and contrast transpiration and translocation. These experiments include ringing experiments, radioactive tracing experiments, and looking at the speed of transport of solutes and water/ions. For example, the ringing investigation shows us that the phloem transports solutes both up and down the plant and that transpiration is not affected by translocation.
Translocation is an active process as it requires energy. The energy needed for this process is transferred by the companion cells accompanying each sieve tube element. These companion cells contain many mitochondria that help carry out the metabolic activity for each sieve tube element.
On the other hand, transpiration is a passive process as it does not require energy. This is because the transpiration pull is created by the negative pressure which follows water loss through the leaf.
Remember that the xylem vessel does not have any cell contents, so there are no organelles there to help in the production of energy!
The movement of water in the xylem is one way, meaning it is unidirectional. Water can only move up through the xylem to the leaf.
The movement of sucrose and other solutes in translocation is bidirectional. Due to this, it requires energy. Sucrose and other solutes can move both up and down the plant, aided by the companion cell of each sieve tube element. We can see that translocation is a two-way process by adding radioactive carbon to the plant. This carbon can be seen above and below the point where it was added to the plant.
Have a look at our article on Translocation for more information on this experiment and others!
Transpiration is the evaporation of water from the leaves surface and the diffusion of water from the spongy mesophyll cells.
An example of transpiration is cuticular transpiration. This involves water loss through the cuticles of plants and can be affected by the presence of a waxy cuticle the thickness of the cuticle too.
Water is lost from the plant via the stomata. The stomata can open and close to regulate water loss.
Transpiration can be broken down into evaporation and diffusion. Evaporation first occurs which turns the liquid water in the spongy mesophyll into gas, which then diffuses out of the stomata in stomatal transpiration.
Transpiration occurs when water is drawn up the xylem via the transpiration pull. Once the water reaches the stomata, it diffuses out.
What is transpiration?
Transpiration is the evaporation of water from the leaves surface and the diffusion of water from the spongy mesophyll cells.
Does transpiration require energy?
Transpiration does not require energy, it is a passive process.
How does temperature affect transpiration?
As temperature increases, the rate of evaporation of water from the stomata of the leaf increases. This increases the rate of transpiration.
How does light intensity affect transpiration?
At low-light levels, the stomata close up. When the stomata close, the rate of transpiration is decreased as the process of evaporation can not happen. Inversely, at high-light intensities, the rate of transpiration is increased as the stomata remain open.
How does humidity affect light intensity?
At high levels of humidity, there is a lot of moisture in the air. This decreases the steepness of the concentration gradient, thereby decreasing the rate of diffusion of water from the spongy mesophyll cells. This decreases the rate of transpiration.
What is the difference between protoxylem and metaxylem?
Protoxylem is found in ‘young’ plants and contains relatively less lignin. Metaxylem is found in mature plants and has more lignin.
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