Transpiration - What and Why?

What is transpiration? In actively growing plants, water is continuously evaporating from the surface of leaf cells exposed to air. This water is replaced by additional absorption of water from the soil. Liquid water extends through the plant from the soil water to the leaf surface where it is converted from a liquid into a gas through the process of evaporation. The cohesive properties of water (hydrogen bonding between adjacent water molecules) allow the column of water to be ‘pulled’ up through the plant as water molecules are evaporating at the surfaces of leaf cells. This process has been termed the Cohesion Theory of Sap Ascent in plants.

Why do plants waste all this water!? Transpiration helps the plant by providing evaporative cooling, nutrient uptake, and carbon dioxide entry.

Picture of water molecules exiting stomata - side view

Why do plants transpire?

Evaporative cooling: As water evaporates or converts from a liquid to a gas at the leaf cell and atmosphere interface, energy is released. This exothermic process uses energy to break the strong hydrogen bonds between liquid water molecules; the energy used to do so is taken from the leaf and given to the water molecules that have converted to highly energetic gas molecules. These gas molecules and their associated energy are released into the atmosphere, cooling the plant.

Accessing nutrients from the soil: The water that enters the root contains dissolved nutrients vital to plant growth. It is thought that transpiration enhances nutrient uptake into plants.

Carbon dioxide entry: When a plant is transpiring, its stomata are open, allowing gas exchange between the atmosphere and the leaf. Open stomata allow water vapor to leave the leaf but also allow carbon dioxide (CO2) to enter. Carbon dioxide is needed for photosynthesis to operate. Unfortunately, much more water leaves the leaf than CO2 enters for three reasons:

  1. H2O molecules are smaller than CO2 molecules and so they move to their destination faster.  
  2. CO2 is only about 0.036% of the atmosphere (and rising!) so the gradient for its entry into the plant is much smaller than the gradient for H2O moving from a hydrated leaf into a dry atmosphere.  
  3. CO2 has a much longer distance to travel to reach its destination in the chloroplast from the atmosphere compared to H2O which only has to move from the leaf cell surface to the atmosphere.

This disproportionate exchange of CO2 and H2O leads to a paradox. The larger the stomatal opening, the easier it is for carbon dioxide to enter the leaf to drive photosynthesis; however, this large opening will also allow the leaf to lose large quantities of water and face the risk of dehydration or water-deficit stress. Plants that are able to keep their stomata slightly open, will lose fewer water molecules for every CO2 molecule that enters and thus will have greater water use efficiency (water lost/CO2 gained). Plants with greater water use efficiencies are better able to withstand periods when water in the soil is low.

Water uptake: Although only less than 5% of the water taken up by roots remains in the plant, that water is vital for plant structure and function. The water is important for driving biochemical processes, but also it creates turgor so that the plant can stand without bones.