11.4 Transpiration

Transpiration is the evaporative loss of water by plants. It occurs mainly through the stomata in the leaves. Besides the loss of water vapour in transpiration, exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the leaf also occurs through pores called stomata (sing. : stoma).

Normally stomata are open in the day time and close during the night. The immediate cause of the opening or closing of the stomata is a change in the turgidity of the guard cells. The inner wall of each guard cell, towards the pore or stomatal aperture, is thick and elastic.

When turgidity increases within the two guard cells flanking each stomatal aperture or pore, the thin outer walls bulge out and force the inner walls into a crescent shape. The opening of the stoma is also aided due to the orientation of the microfibrils in the cell walls of the guard cells. Cellulose microfibrils are oriented radially rather than longitudinally making it easier for the stoma to open.

When the guard cells lose turgor, due to water loss (or water stress) the elastic inner walls regain their original shape, the guard cells become flaccid and the stoma closes. Usually the lower surface of a dorsiventral (often dicotyledonous) leaf has a greater number of stomata while in an isobilateral (often monocotyledonous) leaf they are about equal on both surfaces.

Transpiration is affected by several external factors: temperature, light, humidity, wind speed. Plant factors that affect transpiration include number and distribution of stomata, number of stomata open, per cent, water status of the plant, canopy structure etc.

The transpiration driven ascent of xylem sap depends mainly on the following physical properties of water:

  • Cohesion – mutual attraction between water molecules.
  • Adhesion – attraction of water molecules to polar surfaces (such as the surface of tracheary elements).
  • Surface Tension – water molecules are attracted to each other in the liquid phase more than to water in the gas phase.

These properties give water high tensile strength, i.e., an ability to resist a pulling force, and high capillarity, i.e., the ability to rise in thin tubes. In plants capillarity is aided by the small diameter of the tracheary elements – the tracheids and vessel elements.

The process of photosynthesis requires water. The system of xylem vessels from the root to the leaf vein can supply the needed water. But what force does a plant use to move water molecules into the leaf parenchyma cells where they are needed? As water evaporates through the stomata, since the thin film of water over the cells is continuous, it results in pulling of water, molecule by molecule, into the leaf from the xylem.

Also, because of lower concentration of water vapour in the atmosphere as compared to the substomatal cavity and intercellular spaces, water diffuses into the surrounding air. This creates a ‘pull’. Measurements reveal that the forces generated by transpiration can create pressures sufficient to lift a xylem sized column of water over 130 metres high.

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