Plant mineral nutrition

Plant mineral nutrition

The relationship between plants and all chemical elements other than carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in the environment. Plants obtain most of their mineral nutrients by extracting them from solution in the soil or the aquatic environment. Mineral nutrients are so called because most have been derived from the weathering of minerals of the Earth's crust. Nitrogen is exceptional in that little occurs in minerals: the primary source is gaseous nitrogen of the atmosphere.

Some of the mineral nutrients are essential for plant growth; others are toxic, and some absorbed by plants may play no role in metabolism. Many are also essential or toxic for the health and growth of animals using plants as food. Six basic facts have been established: (1) plants do not need any of the solid materials in the soil—they cannot even take them up; (2) plants do not need soil microorganisms; (3) plant roots must have a supply of oxygen; (4) all plants require at least 14 mineral nutrients; (5) all of the essential mineral nutrients may be supplied to plants as simple ions of inorganic salts in solution; and (6) all of the essential nutrients must be supplied in adequate but nontoxic quantities. These facts provide a conceptually simple definition of and test for an essential mineral nutrient. A mineral nutrient is regarded as essential if, in its absence, a plant cannot complete its life cycle.

Nutrients which plants require in relatively large amounts, that is, the essential macronutrients, are nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Iron is not required in large amounts and hence is regarded as an essential micronutrient or trace element. With the progressive development of better techniques for purifying water and salts, the list of essential nutrients for all plants has expanded to include boron, manganese, zinc, copper, molybdenum, and chlorine. Evidence has accumulated in support of nickel being essential. In addition, sodium and silicon have been shown to be essential for some plants, beneficial to some, and possibly of no benefit to others. Cobalt has also been shown to be essential for the growth of legumes when relying upon atmospheric nitrogen. Claims that two other chemical elements (vanadium and selenium) may be essential micronutrients have still to be firmly established.

Mineral nutrients may be toxic to plants either because the specific nutrient interferes with plant metabolism or because its concentration in combination with others in solution is excessive and interferes with the plant's water relations. Other chemical elements in the environment may also be toxic. High concentrations of salts in soil solutions or aquatic environments may depress their water potential to such an extent that plants cannot obtain sufficient water to germinate or grow. Some desert plants growing in saline soils can accumulate salt concentrations of 20–50% dry weight in their leaves without damage, but salt concentrations of only 1–2% can damage the leaves of many species. See Plant-water relations

A number of elements interfere directly with other aspects of plant metabolism. Sodium is thought to become toxic when it reaches concentrations in the cytoplasm that depress enzyme activity or damage the structure of organelles, while the toxicity of selenium is probably due to its interference in metabolism of amino acids and proteins. The ions of the heavy metals, cobalt, nickel, chromium, manganese, copper, and zinc are particularly toxic in low concentrations, especially when the concentration of calcium in solution is low; increasing calcium increases the plant's tolerance. Aluminum is toxic only in acid soils. Boron may be toxic in soils over a wide pH range, and is a serious problem for sensitive crops in regions where irrigation waters contain excessive boron or where the soils contain unusually high levels of boron.

All plants grow poorly on very acid soils (pH ≤ 3.5); some plants may grow reasonably well on somewhat less acid soils. Several factors may be involved, and their interactions with plant species are complex. The harmful effects of soil acidity in some areas have been exacerbated by industrial emissions resulting in acid rain and in deposition of substances which increase the acidity on further reaction in the soil, with consequent damage to plants and animals in these ecosystems.

The elemental composition of plants is important to the health and productivity of animals which graze them. With the exception of boron, all elements which are essential for plant growth are also essential for herbivorous mammals. Animals also require sodium, iodine, and selenium and, in the case of ruminant herbivores, cobalt. As a result, animals may suffer deficiencies of any one of this latter group of elements when ingesting plants which are quite healthy but contain low concentrations of these elements. In addition, nutrients in forage may be rendered unavailable to animals through a variety of factors that prevent their absorption from the gut. Plants and animals differ also in their tolerance of high levels of nutrients, sometimes with deleterious results for grazing animals. For example, the toxicity of high concentrations of selenium in plants to animals grazing them, known as selenosis, was recognized when the puzzling and long-known “alkali disease” and “blind staggers” in grazing livestock in parts of the Great Plains of North America were shown to be symptoms of chronic and acute selenium toxicity. See Absorption (biology), Nitrogen cycle, Plant transport of solutes, Root (botany)

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Bioscience. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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Individual contributions focus on topics such as the origins, geomorphology, and soils of the sandplains; plant mineral nutrition; plant-animal interactions; pollination vectors; plant insect synergies; conservation; and human relationships with Kwongan plants and land.
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