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Am J Bot. 1998 Jul;85(7):897.

Applications of the compensating pressure theory of water transport.


Some predictions of the recently proposed theory of long-distance water transport in plants (the Compensating Pressure Theory) have been verified experimentally in sunflower leaves. The xylem sap cavitates early in the day under quite small water stress, and the compensating pressure P (applied as the tissue pressure of turgid cells) pushes water into embolized vessels, refilling them during active transpiration. The water potential, as measured by the pressure chamber or psychrometer, is not a measure of the pressure in the xylem, but (as predicted by the theory) a measure of the compensating pressure P. As transpiration increases, P is increased to provide more rapid embolism repair. In many leaf petioles this increase in P is achieved by the hydrolysis of starch in the starch sheath to soluble sugars. At night P falls as starch is reformed. A hypothesis is proposed to explain these observations by pressure-driven reverse osmosis of water from the ground parenchyma of the petiole. Similar processes occur in roots and are manifested as root pressure. The theory requires a pump to transfer water from the soil into the root xylem. A mechanism is proposed by which this pump may function, in which the endodermis acts as a one-way valve and a pressure-confining barrier. Rays and xylem parenchyma of wood act like the xylem parenchyma of petioles and roots to repair embolisms in trees. The postulated root pump permits a re-appraisal of the work done by evaporation during transpiration, leading to the proposal that in tall trees there is no hydrostatic gradient to be overcome in lifting water. Some published observations are re-interpreted in terms of the theory: doubt is cast on the validity of measurements of hydraulic conductance of wood; vulnerability curves are found not to measure the cavitation threshold of water in the xylem, but the osmotic pressure of the xylem parenchyma; if measures of xylem pressure and of hydraulic conductance are both suspect, the accepted view of the hydraulic architecture of trees needs drastic revision; observations that xylem feeding insects feed faster as the water potential becomes more negative are in accord with the theory; tyloses, which have been shown to form in vessels especially vulnerable to cavitation, are seen as necessary for the maintenance of P, and to conserve the supplementary refilling water. Far from being a metastable system on the edge of disaster, the water transport system of the xylem is ultrastable: robust and self-sustaining in response to many kinds of stress.

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