Nutritional Requirements of Plants

Plant Nutrition

Plants meet their nutritional needs for growth by absorbing soil nutrients, water, and carbon dioxide, in addition to the required sunlight.

Learning Objectives

Describe how the nutritional requirements of plants are met

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Nutrients and water are absorbed through the plants root system.
  • Carbon dioxide is absorbed through the leaves.
  • From seedling to mature plant, there is a complex dynamic between plants and their environment (soil and atmosphere).

Key Terms

  • germinate: to sprout or produce buds
  • photosynthesis: the process by which plants and other photoautotrophs generate carbohydrates and oxygen from carbon dioxide, water, and light energy in chloroplasts
  • nutrient: a source of nourishment, such as food, that can be metabolized by an organism to give energy and build tissue

Introduction

Plants are unique organisms that can absorb nutrients and water through their root system, as well as carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Soil quality and climate are the major determinants of plant distribution and growth. The combination of soil nutrients, water, and carbon dioxide, along with sunlight, allows plants to grow. In order to develop into mature, fruit -bearing plants, many requirements must be met and events must be coordinated.

Take for example the Cucurbitaceae family of plants that were the first cultivated in Mesoamerica, although several species are native to North America. The family includes many edible species, such as squash and pumpkin, as well as inedible gourds. First, seeds must germinate under the right conditions in the soil; therefore, temperature, moisture, and soil quality are important factors that play a role in germination and seedling development. Soil quality and climate are significant to plant distribution and growth. Second, the young seedling will eventually grow into a mature plant with the roots absorbing nutrients and water from the soil. At the same time, the aboveground parts of the plant will absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use energy from sunlight to produce organic compounds through photosynthesis. Finally, the fruit are grown and matured and the cycle begins all over again with the new seeds.

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Examples of fruit bearing plants: For this (a) squash seedling (Cucurbita maxima) to develop into a mature plant bearing its (b) fruit, numerous nutritional requirements must be met.

There is a complex dynamic between plants and soils that ultimately determines the outcome and viability of plant life. The following sections of this chapter will discuss the many aspects of the nutritional requirements of plants in greater detail.

The Chemical Composition of Plants

Plants are composed of water, carbon-containing organics, and non-carbon-containing inorganic substances such as potassium and nitrogen.

Learning Objectives

Describe the chemical composition of plants

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Water comprises a large percentage of a plant’s total weight and is used to support cell structure, for metabolic functions, to carry nutrients, and for photosynthesis.
  • Water is absorbed from the soil through root hairs and is carried to the rest of the plant through the xylem.
  • Many essential organic and inorganic nutrients are required to sustain plant life.

Key Terms

  • organic: relating to the compounds of carbon, relating to natural products
  • inorganic: relating to a compound that does not contain carbon
  • xylem: a vascular tissue in land plants primarily responsible for the distribution of water and minerals taken up by the roots; also the primary component of wood
  • transpiration: the loss of water by evaporation in terrestrial plants, especially through the stomata; accompanied by a corresponding uptake from the roots

The Chemical Composition of Plants

Water

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Water absorption by the roots: Water is absorbed through the root hairs and moves up the xylem to the leaves.

Since plants require nutrients in the form of elements such as carbon and potassium, it is important to understand the chemical composition of plants. The majority of volume in a plant cell is water; it typically comprises 80 to 90 percent of the plant’s total weight. Soil is the water source for land plants. It can be an abundant source of water even if it appears dry. Plant roots absorb water from the soil through root hairs and transport it up to the leaves through the xylem. As water vapor is lost from the leaves, the process of transpiration and the polarity of water molecules (which enables them to form hydrogen bonds) draws more water from the roots up through the plant to the leaves. Plants need water to support cell structure, for metabolic functions, to carry nutrients, and for photosynthesis.

Nutrients

Plant cells need essential substances, collectively called nutrients, to sustain life. Plant nutrients may be composed of either organic or inorganic compounds. An organic compound is a chemical compound that contains carbon, such as carbon dioxide obtained from the atmosphere. Carbon that was obtained from atmospheric CO2 composes the majority of the dry mass within most plants. An inorganic compound does not contain carbon and is not part of, or produced by, a living organism. Inorganic substances (which form the majority of the soil substance) are commonly called minerals: those required by plants include nitrogen (N) and potassium (K), for structure and regulation.

Essential Nutrients for Plants

Approximately 20 macronutrients and micronutrients are deemed essential nutrients to support all the biochemical needs of plants.

Learning Objectives

Distinguish among the essential nutrients for plants

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • An element is essential if a plant cannot complete its life cycle without it, if no other element can perform the same function, and if it is directly involved in nutrition.
  • An essential nutrient required by the plant in large amounts is called a macronutrient, while one required in very small amounts is termed a micronutrient.
  • Missing or inadequate supplies of nutrients adversely affect plant growth, leading to stunted growth, slow growth, chlorosis, or cell death.
  • About half the essential nutrients are micronutrients such as boron, chlorine, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, and sodium.

Key Terms

  • micronutrient: a mineral, vitamin, or other substance that is essential, even in very small quantities, for growth or metabolism
  • chlorosis: a yellowing of plant tissue due to loss or absence of chlorophyll
  • macronutrient: any of the elements required in large amounts by all living things

Essential Nutrients

Plants require only light, water, and about 20 elements to support all their biochemical needs. These 20 elements are called essential nutrients. For an element to be regarded as essential, three criteria are required:

  1. a plant cannot complete its life cycle without the element
  2. no other element can perform the function of the element
  3. the element is directly involved in plant nutrition

Macronutrients and Micronutrients

The essential elements can be divided into macronutrients and micronutrients. Nutrients that plants require in larger amounts are called macronutrients. About half of the essential elements are considered macronutrients: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. The first of these macronutrients, carbon (C), is required to form carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, and many other compounds; it is, therefore, present in all macromolecules. On average, the dry weight (excluding water) of a cell is 50 percent carbon, making it a key part of plant biomolecules.

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Essential elements required by plants: For an element to be regarded as essential a plant cannot complete its life cycle without the element, no other element can perform the function of the element, and the element is directly involved in plant nutrition.

The next-most-abundant element in plant cells is nitrogen (N); it is part of proteins and nucleic acids. Nitrogen is also used in the synthesis of some vitamins. Hydrogen and oxygen are macronutrients that are part of many organic compounds and also form water. Oxygen is necessary for cellular respiration; plants use oxygen to store energy in the form of ATP. Phosphorus (P), another macromolecule, is necessary to synthesize nucleic acids and phospholipids. As part of ATP, phosphorus enables food energy to be converted into chemical energy through oxidative phosphorylation. Light energy is converted into chemical energy during photophosphorylation in photosynthesis; and into chemical energy to be extracted during respiration. Sulfur is part of certain amino acids, such as cysteine and methionine, and is present in several coenzymes. Sulfur also plays a role in photosynthesis as part of the electron transport chain where hydrogen gradients are key in the conversion of light energy into ATP. Potassium (K) is important because of its role in regulating stomatal opening and closing. As the openings for gas exchange, stomata help maintain a healthy water balance; a potassium ion pump supports this process.

Magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca) are also important macronutrients. The role of calcium is twofold: to regulate nutrient transport and to support many enzyme functions. Magnesium is important to the photosynthetic process. These minerals, along with the micronutrients, also contribute to the plant’s ionic balance.

In addition to macronutrients, organisms require various elements in small amounts. These micronutrients, or trace elements, are present in very small quantities. The seven main micronutrients include boron, chlorine, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, and molybdenum. Boron (B) is believed to be involved in carbohydrate transport in plants; it also assists in metabolic regulation. Boron deficiency will often result in bud dieback. Chlorine (Cl) is necessary for osmosis and ionic balance; it also plays a role in photosynthesis. Copper (Cu) is a component of some enzymes. Symptoms of copper deficiency include browning of leaf tips and chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves). Iron (Fe) is essential for chlorophyll synthesis, which is why an iron deficiency results in chlorosis. Manganese (Mn) activates some important enzymes involved in chlorophyll formation. Manganese-deficient plants will develop chlorosis between the veins of its leaves. The availability of manganese is partially dependent on soil pH. Molybdenum (Mo) is essential to plant health as it is used by plants to reduce nitrates into usable forms. Some plants use it for nitrogen fixation; thus, it may need to be added to some soils before seeding legumes. Zinc (Zn) participates in chlorophyll formation and also activates many enzymes. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include chlorosis and stunted growth.

Deficiencies in any of these nutrients, particularly the macronutrients, can adversely affect plant growth. Depending on the specific nutrient, a lack can cause stunted growth, slow growth, or chlorosis. Extreme deficiencies may result in leaves showing signs of cell death.

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Nutrient deficiency in plants: Nutrient deficiency is evident in the symptoms these plants show. This (a) grape tomato suffers from blossom end rot caused by calcium deficiency. The yellowing in this (b) Frangula alnus results from magnesium deficiency. Inadequate magnesium also leads to (c) intervenal chlorosis, seen here in a sweetgum leaf. This (d) palm is affected by potassium deficiency.