This may turn out to be a silly question, but...
Not being able to wait for Spring and driven by a bad case of cabin fever, I
recently made some containers to experiment with hydroponics. It's going
surprisingly well I think. The spinach is not happy, but the lettuce and
tomatoes are looking good after 3 weeks.
I have some understanding of how a plant works, but what I'm wondering is
where does the actual mass (tissue, cells) come from? Does a plant
literally create some amount of mass out of "thin air" through
photosynthesis? Does carbon from carbon dioxide make up a significant part
of the mass? Hypothetically, if you grew a plant in a closed system and
measured the amount of water and nutrients that were consumed, would that
exactly equal the weight of the plant, or would the plant weight more. I'm
thinking it would weigh more, and if that's so, what's the breakdown in
percentages of mass from carbon, nutrients and water?
High school biology is a long way gone. :-)
Answering my own question here...
It appears that, in an average tree at least, some 90% of the bio mass is
derived from oxygen and carbon in the air. I would guess that if you
weighed a healthy plant, around 90% of that weight would be water, but after
removing the water, the remainder - the actual structural parts - would be
primarily derived from elements in the air.
I had no idea it was that much. That's fascinating! I'm going to start
fermenting my beer next to my plants. See what a little more CO2 does. :-)
Let's think about that from the perspective of the underlying chemistry.
When we talk about water we
describe a molecule of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. But these
words refer to atoms, not the
energy which bonds the atoms together. Wood is mainly a carbohydrate called
formula, C6 H10 O5). Compare the mass of these atoms: carbon is about 12
mass units, oxygen about 16,
and hydrogen about 1. Thus carbon and oxygen contribute 72 (6 x 12 for the
carbon) plus 80 (5 x 16 for
the oxygen) mass units while hydrogen contributes only 10 (10 x 1) units.
Thus carbon and oxygen make
up 152/162 of the cellulose molecule by mass. And experiments using tagged
markers have shown that
this oxygen comes from the carbon dioxide molecule not from the water
molecule. The carbon is not
entering the plant in minerals, or in the water, but rather from the air.
Carbon dioxide enters plant leaves as a gas. It is combined with hydrogen
from water to produce
carbohydrates. In this process of photosynthesis, oxygen gas is produced as
a by-product of the reaction.
If wood is mostly carbon and oxygen, then wood comes mainly from air! That
rather unexpected point
should get students attention: the mightiest redwood, or rainforest giant,
is made mostly of elements
derived from air. These first two Activities use something readily
available, a pencil, and something less
easy to obtain--dry ice--to show students how carbon behaves as it changes
from a solid to a gas.
"..........I'm going to start fermenting my beer next to my plants. See
what a little more CO2 does. ........."
Extra CO2 should give you an increase in leaf density and a higher petal
count in flowers, which is why you will often find professional growers
using Gas burners to add extra CO2
In monocots and dicots, the energy starts in the seed's cotyledons, which
are highly modified leaf structures consisting mostly of starch. It's
complex mechanism that triggers germination, much more than I know about,
but once germination is triggered the growth is fed from the cotyledons.
Secondary growth arises from zones of maturation, in which clusters of
'totipotent' cells called Parenchyma can become any type of cell the plants
An excellent book is 'Botany for Gardeners', Capon.
Until relatively recent times it was believed that plants took nothing from
the soil. Experimenters weighed the soil in containers before and after
cropping and found no difference. This being due to their inability to weigh
such minuscule amounts.
To determine the relative quantities a plant should be weighed fresh
and then when totally dry. This shows the water content.
Burning the dry plant fiercely will give the remaining two figures. The
final weight will be that of minerals taken from the soil [very little] and
the difference will be that having come from the atmosphere.
Best Wishes~~ Brian
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