Five of the key areas of study within plant physiology
Plant physiology encompasses all the internal chemical and physical activities of plants associated with life. Chemicals obtained from the air, soil and water form the basis of all plant metabolism. The energy of sunlight, captured by oxygenic photosynthesis and released by cellular respiration, is the basis of almost all life. Photoautotrophs, including all green plants, algae and cyanobacteria gather energy directly from sunlight by photosynthesis. Heterotrophs including all animals, all fungi, all completely parasitic plants, and non-photosynthetic bacteria take in organic molecules produced by photoautotrophs and respire them or use them in the construction of cells and tissues. Respiration is the oxidation of carbon compounds by breaking them down into simpler structures to release the energy they contain, essentially the opposite of photosynthesis.
Molecules are moved within plants by transport processes that operate at a variety of spatial scales. Subcellular transport of ions, electrons and molecules such as water and enzymes occurs across cell membranes. Minerals and water are transported from roots to other parts of the plant in the transpiration stream. Diffusion, osmosis, and active transport and mass flow are all different ways transport can occur. Examples of elements that plants need to transport are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. In vascular plants, these elements are extracted from the soil as soluble ions by the roots and transported throughout the plant in the xylem. Most of the elements required for plant nutrition come from the chemical breakdown of soil minerals. Sucrose produced by photosynthesis is transported from the leaves to other parts of the plant in the phloem and plant hormones are transported by a variety of processes.
An oat coleoptile
with the sun overhead. Auxin
(pink) is evenly distributed in its tip. 2
With the sun at an angle and only shining on one side of the shoot, auxin moves to the opposite side and stimulates
cell elongation there. 3
Extra growth on that side causes the shoot to bend towards the sun
Plants are not passive, but respond to external signals such as light, touch, and injury by moving or growing towards or away from the stimulus, as appropriate. Tangible evidence of touch sensitivity is the almost instantaneous collapse of leaflets of Mimosa pudica, the insect traps of Venus flytrap and bladderworts, and the pollinia of orchids.
The hypothesis that plant growth and development is coordinated by plant hormones or plant growth regulators first emerged in the late 19th century. Darwin experimented on the movements of plant shoots and roots towards light and gravity, and concluded "It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle . . acts like the brain of one of the lower animals . . directing the several movements". About the same time, the role of auxins (from the Greek auxein, to grow) in control of plant growth was first outlined by the Dutch scientist Frits Went. The first known auxin, indole-3-acetic acid (IAA), which promotes cell growth, was only isolated from plants about 50 years later. This compound mediates the tropic responses of shoots and roots towards light and gravity. The finding in 1939 that plant callus could be maintained in culture containing IAA, followed by the observation in 1947 that it could be induced to form roots and shoots by controlling the concentration of growth hormones were key steps in the development of plant biotechnology and genetic modification.
Venus's fly trap, Dionaea muscipula
, showing the touch-sensitive insect trap in action
Cytokinins are a class of plant hormones named for their control of cell division (especially cytokinesis). The natural cytokinin zeatin was discovered in corn, Zea mays, and is a derivative of the purine adenine. Zeatin is produced in roots and transported to shoots in the xylem where it promotes cell division, bud development, and the greening of chloroplasts. The gibberelins, such as Gibberelic acid are diterpenes synthesised from acetyl CoA via the mevalonate pathway. They are involved in the promotion of germination and dormancy-breaking in seeds, in regulation of plant height by controlling stem elongation and the control of flowering. Abscisic acid (ABA) occurs in all land plants except liverworts, and is synthesised from carotenoids in the chloroplasts and other plastids. It inhibits cell division, promotes seed maturation, and dormancy, and promotes stomatal closure. It was so named because it was originally thought to control abscission. Ethylene is a gaseous hormone that is produced in all higher plant tissues from methionine. It is now known to be the hormone that stimulates or regulates fruit ripening and abscission, and it, or the synthetic growth regulator ethephon which is rapidly metabolised to produce ethylene, are used on industrial scale to promote ripening of cotton, pineapples and other climacteric crops.
Another class of phytohormones is the jasmonates, first isolated from the oil of Jasminum grandiflorum which regulates wound responses in plants by unblocking the expression of genes required in the systemic acquired resistance response to pathogen attack.
In addition to being the primary energy source for plants, light functions as a signalling device, providing information to the plant, such as how much sunlight the plant receives each day. This can result in adaptive changes in a process known as photomorphogenesis. Phytochromes are the photoreceptors in a plant that are sensitive to light.