Plant Nutrition

Discuss the common nutritional needs of plants

Plants obtain food in two different ways. Autotrophic plants can make their own food from inorganic raw materials, such as carbon dioxide and water, through photosynthesis in the presence of sunlight. Green plants are included in this group. Some plants, however, are heterotrophic: they are totally parasitic and lacking in chlorophyll. These plants, referred to as holo-parasitic plants, are unable to synthesize organic carbon and draw all of their nutrients from the host plant.

Plants may also enlist the help of microbial partners in nutrient acquisition. Particular species of bacteria and fungi have evolved along with certain plants to create a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with roots. This improves the nutrition of both the plant and the microbe. The formation of nodules in legume plants and mycorrhization can be considered among the nutritional adaptations of plants. However, these are not the only type of adaptations that we may find; many plants have other adaptations that allow them to thrive under specific conditions.

Learning Objectives

  • List the elements and compounds required for proper plant nutrition
  • Describe how symbiotic relationships help autotrophic plants obtain nutrients
  • Describe how heterotrophic plants obtain nutrients


Nutritional Requirements

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.

The Chemical Composition of Plants

Illustration shows a root tip. The tip of the root is bare, and hairs grow further up. A cross section at the top of the root reveals xylem tissue interspersed by four ovals containing phloem at the periphery. Figure 1. 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, and 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 (Figure 1). Plants need water to support cell structure, for metabolic functions, to carry nutrients, and for photosynthesis.

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 solution, are commonly called minerals: those required by plants include nitrogen (N) and potassium (K) for structure and regulation.

Essential Nutrients

Plants require only light, water and about 20 elements to support all their biochemical needs: these 20 elements are called essential nutrients (Table 1). 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; and 3) the element is directly involved in plant nutrition.

Table 1. Essential Elements for Plant Growth
Macronutrients Micronutrients
Carbon (C) Iron (Fe)
Hydrogen (H) Manganese (Mn)
Oxygen (O) Boron (B)
Nitrogen (N) Molybdenum (Mo)
Phosphorus (P) Copper (Cu)
Potassium (K) Zinc (Zn)
Calcium (Ca) Chlorine (Cl)
Magnesium (Mg) Nickel (Ni)
Sulfur (S) Cobalt (Co)
Sodium (Na)
Silicon (Si)

Macronutrients and Micronutrients

The essential elements can be divided into two groups: 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. As shown in Figure 2, carbon is a key part of plant biomolecules.

Three cellulose fibers and the chemical structure of cellulose is shown. Cellulose consists of unbranched chains of glucose subunits that form long, straight fibers. Figure 2. Cellulose, the main structural component of the plant cell wall, makes up over thirty percent of plant matter. It is the most abundant organic compound on earth.


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. Likewise, 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 play a key role 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, which are described below, 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. They include boron (B), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), iron (Fe), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), silicon (Si), and sodium (Na).

Photo (a) shows a tomato plant with two green tomato fruits. The fruits have turned dark brown on the bottom. Photo (b) shows a plant with green leaves; some of the leaves have turned yellow. Photo (c) shows a five-lobed leaf that is yellow with greenish veins. Photo (d) shows green palm leaves with yellow tips. Figure 3. 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. (credit c: modification of work by Jim Conrad; credit d: modification of work by Malcolm Manners)


Deficiencies in any of these nutrients—particularly the macronutrients—can adversely affect plant growth (Figure 3). Depending on the specific nutrient, a lack can cause stunted growth, slow growth, or chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves). Extreme deficiencies may result in leaves showing signs of cell death.

Visit this website to participate in an interactive experiment on plant nutrient deficiencies. You can adjust the amounts of N, P, K, Ca, Mg, and Fe that plants receive . . . and see what happens.

Hydroponics

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a water-nutrient solution instead of soil. Since its advent, hydroponics has developed into a growing process that researchers often use. Scientists who are interested in studying plant nutrient deficiencies can use hydroponics to study the effects of different nutrient combinations under strictly controlled conditions. Hydroponics has also developed as a way to grow flowers, vegetables, and other crops in greenhouse environments. You might find hydroponically grown produce at your local grocery store. Today, many lettuces and tomatoes in your market have been hydroponically grown.

In Summary: Nutritional Requirements

Plants can absorb inorganic nutrients and water through their root system, and carbon dioxide from the environment. The combination of organic compounds, along with water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight, produce the energy that allows plants to grow. Inorganic compounds form the majority of the soil solution. Plants access water though the soil. Water is absorbed by the plant root, transports nutrients throughout the plant, and maintains the structure of the plant. Essential elements are indispensable elements for plant growth. They are divided into macronutrients and micronutrients. The macronutrients plants require are carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Important micronutrients include iron, manganese, boron, molybdenum, copper, zinc, chlorine, nickel, cobalt, silicon and sodium.

Autotrophic Plants

Nitrogen Fixation: Root and Bacteria Interactions

Nitrogen is an important macronutrient because it is part of nucleic acids and proteins. Atmospheric nitrogen, which is the diatomic molecule N2, or dinitrogen, is the largest pool of nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems. However, plants cannot take advantage of this nitrogen because they do not have the necessary enzymes to convert it into biologically useful forms. However, nitrogen can be “fixed,” which means that it can be converted to ammonia (NH3) through biological, physical, or chemical processes. As you have learned, biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) is the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into ammonia (NH3), exclusively carried out by prokaryotes such as soil bacteria or cyanobacteria. Biological processes contribute 65 percent of the nitrogen used in agriculture. The following equation represents the process:

N2+16 ATP+8e+8H+2NH3+16 ADP+16Pi+H2\text{N}_2+16\text{ ATP}+8\text{e}^{-}+8\text{H}^{+}\longrightarrow2\text{NH}_{3}+16\text{ ADP}+16\text{Pi}+\text{H}_2

The most important source of BNF is the symbiotic interaction between soil bacteria and legume plants, including many crops important to humans (Figure 4). The NH3 resulting from fixation can be transported into plant tissue and incorporated into amino acids, which are then made into plant proteins. Some legume seeds, such as soybeans and peanuts, contain high levels of protein, and serve among the most important agricultural sources of protein in the world.

 Top photo shows a bowl of shelled peanuts. Middle photo shows red kidney beans. Bottom photo shows white, bumpy, round chickpeas. Figure 4. Some common edible legumes—like (a) peanuts, (b) beans, and (c) chickpeas—are able to interact symbiotically with soil bacteria that fix nitrogen. (credit a: modification of work by Jules Clancy; credit b: modification of work by USDA)


Practice Question

Farmers often rotate corn (a cereal crop) and soy beans (a legume), planting a field with each crop in alternate seasons. What advantage might this crop rotation confer?

[practice-area rows="2"][/practice-area]





Soil bacteria, collectively called rhizobia, symbiotically interact with legume roots to form specialized structures called nodules, in which nitrogen fixation takes place. This process entails the reduction of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia, by means of the enzyme nitrogenase. Therefore, using rhizobia is a natural and environmentally friendly way to fertilize plants, as opposed to chemical fertilization that uses a nonrenewable resource, such as natural gas. Through symbiotic nitrogen fixation, the plant benefits from using an endless source of nitrogen from the atmosphere. The process simultaneously contributes to soil fertility because the plant root system leaves behind some of the biologically available nitrogen. As in any symbiosis, both organisms benefit from the interaction: the plant obtains ammonia, and bacteria obtain carbon compounds generated through photosynthesis, as well as a protected niche in which to grow (Figure 5).

 Part A is a photo of legume roots, which are long and thin with hair-like appendages. Nodules are bulbous protrusions extending from the root. Part B is a transmission electron micrograph of a nodule cell cross section. Black oval-shaped vesicles containing rhizobia are visible. The vesicles are surrounded by a white layer and are scattered unevenly throughout the cell, which is gray. Figure 5. Soybean roots contain (a) nitrogen-fixing nodules. Cells within the nodules are infected with Bradyrhyzobium japonicum, a rhizobia or “root-loving” bacterium. The bacteria are encased in (b) vesicles inside the cell, as can be seen in this transmission electron micrograph. (credit a: modification of work by USDA; credit b: modification of work by Louisa Howard, Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)


Mycorrhizae: The Symbiotic Relationship between Fungi and Roots

A nutrient depletion zone can develop when there is rapid soil solution uptake, low nutrient concentration, low diffusion rate, or low soil moisture. These conditions are very common; therefore, most plants rely on fungi to facilitate the uptake of minerals from the soil. Fungi form symbiotic associations called mycorrhizae with plant roots, in which the fungi actually are integrated into the physical structure of the root. The fungi colonize the living root tissue during active plant growth.

 Photo shows a root with many branching tips. The surface of the root is fuzzy in appearance. Figure 6. Root tips proliferate in the presence of mycorrhizal infection, which appears as off-white fuzz in this image. (credit: modification of work by Nilsson et al., BMC Bioinformatics 2005)


Through mycorrhization, the plant obtains mainly phosphate and other minerals, such as zinc and copper, from the soil. The fungus obtains nutrients, such as sugars, from the plant root (Figure 6). Mycorrhizae help increase the surface area of the plant root system because hyphae, which are narrow, can spread beyond the nutrient depletion zone. Hyphae can grow into small soil pores that allow access to phosphorus that would otherwise be unavailable to the plant. The beneficial effect on the plant is best observed in poor soils. The benefit to fungi is that they can obtain up to 20 percent of the total carbon accessed by plants. Mycorrhizae functions as a physical barrier to pathogens. It also provides an induction of generalized host defense mechanisms, and sometimes involves production of antibiotic compounds by the fungi.

There are two types of mycorrhizae: ectomycorrhizae and endomycorrhizae. Ectomycorrhizae form an extensive dense sheath around the roots, called a mantle. Hyphae from the fungi extend from the mantle into the soil, which increases the surface area for water and mineral absorption. This type of mycorrhizae is found in forest trees, especially conifers, birches, and oaks. Endomycorrhizae, also called arbuscular mycorrhizae, do not form a dense sheath over the root. Instead, the fungal mycelium is embedded within the root tissue. Endomycorrhizae are found in the roots of more than 80 percent of terrestrial plants.

Heterotrophic Plants

Some plants cannot produce their own food and must obtain their nutrition from outside sources—these plants are heterotrophic. This may occur with plants that are parasitic or saprophytic. Some plants are mutualistic symbionts, epiphytes, or insectivorous.

Plant Parasites

A parasitic plant depends on its host for survival. Some parasitic plants have no leaves. An example of this is the dodder (Figure 7a), which has a weak, cylindrical stem that coils around the host and forms suckers. From these suckers, cells invade the host stem and grow to connect with the vascular bundles of the host. The parasitic plant obtains water and nutrients through these connections. The plant is a total parasite (a holoparasite) because it is completely dependent on its host. Other parasitic plants (hemiparasites) are fully photosynthetic and only use the host for water and minerals. There are about 4,100 species of parasitic plants.

Saprophytes

A saprophyte is a plant that does not have chlorophyll and gets its food from dead matter, similar to bacteria and fungi (note that fungi are often called saprophytes, which is incorrect, because fungi are not plants). Plants like these use enzymes to convert organic food materials into simpler forms from which they can absorb nutrients (Figure 7b). Most saprophytes do not directly digest dead matter: instead, they parasitize fungi that digest dead matter, or are mycorrhizal, ultimately obtaining photosynthate from a fungus that derived photosynthate from its host. Saprophytic plants are uncommon; only a few species are described.

 Photo a shows a beige vine with small white flowers. The vine is wrapped around a woody stem of a plant with green leaves. Photo b shows a plant with light pink stems reminiscent of asparagus. Bud-like appendages grow from the tips of the stems. Figure 7. (a) The dodder is a holoparasite that penetrates the host’s vascular tissue and diverts nutrients for its own growth. Note that the vines of the dodder, which has white flowers, are beige. The dodder has no chlorophyll and cannot produce its own food. (b) Saprophytes, like this Dutchmen’s pipe (Monotropa hypopitys), obtain their food from dead matter and do not have chlorophyll. (a credit: "Lalithamba"/Flickr; b credit: modification of work by Iwona Erskine-Kellie)


Symbionts

A symbiont is a plant in a symbiotic relationship, with special adaptations such as mycorrhizae or nodule formation. Fungi also form symbiotic associations with cyanobacteria and green algae (called lichens). Lichens can sometimes be seen as colorful growths on the surface of rocks and trees (Figure 8a). The algal partner (phycobiont) makes food autotrophically, some of which it shares with the fungus; the fungal partner (mycobiont) absorbs water and minerals from the environment, which are made available to the green alga. If one partner was separated from the other, they would both die.

Epiphytes

An epiphyte is a plant that grows on other plants, but is not dependent upon the other plant for nutrition (Figure 8b). Epiphytes have two types of roots: clinging aerial roots, which absorb nutrients from humus that accumulates in the crevices of trees; and aerial roots, which absorb moisture from the atmosphere.

Photo (a) shows a tall pine tree covered with green lichen. Photo (b) shows a tree trunk covered with epiphytes, which look like ferns growing on the trunk of a tree. There are so many epiphytes the trunk is nearly obscured. Figure 8. (a) Lichens, which often have symbiotic relationships with other plants, can sometimes be found growing on trees. (b) These epiphyte plants grow in the main greenhouse of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. (credit: a "benketaro"/Flickr)


Insectivorous Plants

Photo shows a Venus flytrap. Pairs of modified leaves of this plant have the appearance of a mouth. White, hair-like appendages at the opening of the mouth have the appearance of teeth. The mouth can close on unwary insects, trapping them in the teeth. Figure 9. A Venus flytrap has specialized leaves to trap insects. (credit: "Selena N. B. H."/Flickr)


An insectivorous plant has specialized leaves to attract and digest insects. The Venus flytrap is popularly known for its insectivorous mode of nutrition, and has leaves that work as traps (Figure 9).

The minerals it obtains from prey compensate for those lacking in the boggy (low pH) soil of its native North Carolina coastal plains. There are three sensitive hairs in the center of each half of each leaf. The edges of each leaf are covered with long spines. Nectar secreted by the plant attracts flies to the leaf. When a fly touches the sensory hairs, the leaf immediately closes. Next, fluids and enzymes break down the prey and minerals are absorbed by the leaf. Since this plant is popular in the horticultural trade, it is threatened in its original habitat.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.

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