Plant Responses to Gravity

Whether or not they germinate in the light or in total darkness, shoots usually sprout up from the ground, and roots grow downward into the ground. A plant laid on its side in the dark will send shoots upward when given enough time. Gravitropism ensures that roots grow into the soil and that shoots grow toward sunlight. Growth of the shoot apical tip upward is called negative gravitropism, whereas growth of the roots downward is called positive gravitropism.

Amyloplasts (also known as statoliths) are specialized plastids that contain starch granules and settle downward in response to gravity. Amyloplasts are found in shoots and in specialized cells of the root cap. When a plant is tilted, the statoliths drop to the new bottom cell wall. A few hours later, the shoot or root will show growth in the new vertical direction.

The mechanism that mediates gravitropism is reasonably well understood. When amyloplasts settle to the bottom of the gravity-sensing cells in the root or shoot, they physically contact the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), causing the release of calcium ions from inside the ER. This calcium signaling in the cells causes polar transport of the plant hormone IAA to the bottom of the cell. In roots, a high concentration of IAA inhibits cell elongation. The effect slows growth on the lower side of the root, while cells develop normally on the upper side. IAA has the opposite effect in shoots, where a higher concentration at the lower side of the shoot stimulates cell expansion, causing the shoot to grow up. After the shoot or root begin to grow vertically, the amyloplasts return to their normal position. Other hypotheses—involving the entire cell in the gravitropism effect—have been proposed to explain why some mutants that lack amyloplasts may still exhibit a weak gravitropic response.