Plants obtain their carbon and most of their oxygen from CO2 in the atmosphere. However, their remaining nutritional requirements are obtained from minerals and water for hydrogen in the soil.
Uptake of Mineral Ions
Unlike water, all minerals cannot be passively absorbed by the roots. Two factors account for this: (i) minerals are present in the soil as charged particles (ions) which cannot move across cell membranes and (ii) the concentration of minerals in the soil is usually lower than the concentration of minerals in the root. Therefore, most minerals must enter the root by active absorption into the cytoplasm of epidermal cells. This needs energy in the form of ATP. The active uptake of ions is partly responsible for the water potential gradient in roots, and therefore for the uptake of water by osmosis. Some ions also move into the epidermal cells passively.
Ions are absorbed from the soil by both passive and active transport. Specific proteins in the membranes of root hair cells actively pump ions from the soil into the cytoplasms of the epidermal cells. Like all cells, the endodermal cells have many transport proteins embedded in their plasma membrane; they let some solutes cross the membrane, but not others. Transport proteins of endodermal cells are control points, where a plant adjusts the quantity and types of solutes that reach the xylem. Note that the root endodermis because of the layer of suberin has the ability to actively transport ions in one direction only.
Translocation of Mineral Ions
After the ions have reached xylem through active or passive uptake, or a combination of the two, their further transport up the stem to all parts of the plant is through the transpiration stream.
The chief sinks for the mineral elements are the growing regions of the plant, such as the apical and lateral meristems, young leaves, developing flowers, fruits and seeds, and the storage organs. Unloading of mineral ions occurs at the fine vein endings through diffusion and active uptake by these cells.
Mineral ions are frequently remobilised, particularly from older, senescing parts. Older dying leaves export much of their mineral content to younger leaves. Similarly, before leaf fall in decidous plants, minerals are removed to other parts. Elements most readily mobilised are phosphorus, sulphur, nitrogen and potassium. Some elements that are structural components like calcium are not remobilised.
An analysis of the xylem exudates shows that though some of the nitrogen travels as inorganic ions, much of it is carried in the organic form as amino acids and related compounds. Similarly, small amounts of P and S are carried as organic compounds. In addition, small amount of exchange of materials does take place between xylem and phloem. Hence, it is not that we can clearly make a distinction and say categorically that xylem transports only inorganic nutrients while phloem transports only organic materials, as was traditionally believed.