Fertilisers is the term used for “chemicals or natural substances added to soil to promote the growth of plants”.
Key point: in spite of what it says on this packet of fertiliser, fertilisers are not food for plants. (Just adding this photo to the post makes me feel slightly sick inside: how could MiracleGro be so happy to confuse generations of people who visit garden centres…..?)
Plants are autotrophic: they make their own food molecules in the amazing process of photosynthesis. Plants use carbon dioxide from the air plus water from their roots to produce a whole range of organic molecules powered by the energy from sunlight.
But remember that in order to make amino acids, proteins and DNA plants will also need a source of nitrogen atoms. Carbon dioxide and water do not contain any nitrogen atoms and yet nitrogen is needed for building amino acids, proteins and DNA.
Where do plants get this nitrogen from?
Well the key idea is that they do not take it from the air. Nitrogen gas in the air is very un-reactive and cannot be fixed in the plant. But the soil contains nitrate ions and plants can absorb these by active transport in their root hair cells. Nitrate ions are transported up the plant in the xylem and can be used to make amino acids etc. in the leaf cells.
Nitrates are not the only mineral ions taken up by plants in their roots. Plants absorb phosphate (for making DNA), magnesium (for making chlorophyll), potassium (for a wider variety of cellular processes) amongst many others.
So fertilisers are a way of replenishing the concentration of these essential minerals in the soil. More fertiliser, more minerals, faster plant growth as more proteins/DNA etc. can be made in the leaves…. Simples!
The commonest type of inorganic (chemical) fertiliser are called NPK fertilisers. (Nitrogen, Phosphate, Potassium). These can be bought in handy 50kg sacks (see picture above), stored and then spread easily over fields.
Farmers can also use manure which is an organic fertiliser. Here are some advantages/disadvantages of organic fertilisers in case you are interested…. It is smelly, bulky and difficult to store.
The topic of plant transport can appear quite complicated but you will see from your past paper booklets that the questions examiners tend to set on it are much more straightforward.
The key piece of understanding is to realise that there are two transport systems in plants, learn their names and what they transport.
- Xylem vessels move water and mineral ions from the roots to the leaves.
- Phloem sieve tubes move sugars, notably sucrose, and amino acids around the plant. Both of these molecules are made in photosynthesis in the leaves and so can be transported from the leaves to the areas in the plant where they are needed.
Water is needed for photosynthesis of course in the leaves (remember that rain water cannot enter leaves directly because of the waxy cuticle on the surface of the leaf). All the water that is used in photosynthesis is absorbed in the roots from the soil and moved up the plant in the xylem vessels. Minerals such as nitrate, phosphate and magnesium ions are also required in the leaves for making amino acids, DNA and chlorophyll respectively. These minerals are moved up the plant along with the water in the xylem.
How does water enter the roots from the soil?
Water molecules can only enter root hair cells (and indeed can only cross any cell membrane) by one mechanism and that is OSMOSIS. If you understand the mechanism of osmosis that is great but don’t worry too much about it at this stage. You need to know that osmosis is a net movement of water from a dilute solution to a more concentrated solution across a partially permeable membrane.
How do mineral ions enter the roots from the soil?
Minerals are pumped into the root hair cells from the soil using ACTIVE TRANSPORT. This a process that uses energy from respiration in the cell to move ions against their concentration gradient (so from a lower concentration in the soil to a higher concentration inside the cell cytoplasm.)
What do we know about xylem vessels?
The cells that water and minerals are transported in are called xylem vessels. They have some interesting specialisations for this function. They are dead cells that are empty with no cytoplasm or nucleus. The end walls of these cells break down to provide a continuous unbroken column of water all the way up the plant. The cell walls of xylem vessels are thick and strengthened and waterproofed with a chemical called lignin.
What causes the water to move up the xylem?
Clearly it will take energy from somewhere to move water against gravity all the way up a plant from the roots to the leaves. The key question here is what provides the energy for this movement? There is no pumping of water up the plant and indeed the plant spends no energy at all on water movement. The answer is that it is the heat energy from the sun that evaporates water in the leaves that provides the energy for water movement. When you combine this with the fact that water molecules are “sticky” – they are attracted to their neighbours by a type of weak bond called a hydrogen bond – you can see that the water evaporating into the air spaces in the leaf can pull water molecules up the continuous column of water found in the xylem. The proper adjective for this stickiness is cohesive and you should know the name for the evaporation of water in the leaves (Transpiration)
A great reminder of how difficult it must be for a tree to move water up xylem vessels to such a great height. Plant biology is always way more complex and confusing than you would think.