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Carbon allocation to shoots and roots in relation to nitrogen supply is mediated by cytokinins and sucrose: Opinion

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In this paper we firstly show some general responses of biomass partitioning upon nitrogen deprivation. Secondly, these responses are explained in terms of allocation of carbon and nitrogen, photosynthesis and respiration, using a simulation model. Thirdly, we present a hypothesis for the regulation of biomass partitioning to shoots and roots.

Shortly after nitrogen deprivation, the relative growth rate (RGR) of the roots generally increases and thereafter decreases, whereas that of the shoot decreases immediately. The increased RGR of the root and decreased RGR of the shoot shortly after a reduction in the nitrogen supply, cause the root weight ratio (root weight per unit plant weight) to increase rapidly.

We showed previously that allocation of carbon and nitrogen to shoots and roots can satisfactorily be described as a function of the internal organic plant nitrogen concentration. Using these functions in a simulation model, we analyzed why the relative growth rate of the roots increases shortly after a reduction in nitrogen supply. The model predicts that upon nitrogen deprivation, the plant nitrogen concentration and the rate of photosynthesis per unit plant weight rapidly decrease, and the allocation of recently assimilated carbon and nitrogen to roots rapidly increases. Simulations show that the increased relative growth rate of the root upon nitrogen deprivation is explained by decreased use of carbon for root respiration, due to decreased carbon costs for nitrogen uptake. The stimulation of the relative growth rate of the root is further amplified by the increased allocation of carbon and nitrogen to roots. Using the simple relation between the plant nitrogen concentration and allocation, the model describes plant responses quite realistically.

Based on information in the literature and on our own experiments we hypothesize that allocation of carbon is mediated by sucrose and cytokinins. We propose that nitrogen deprivation leads to a reduced cytokinin production, a decreased rate of cytokinin export from the roots to the shoot, and decreased cytokinin concentrations. A reduced cytokinin concentration in the shoot represses cell division in leaves, whereas a low cytokinin concentration in roots neutralizes the inhibitory effect of cytokinins on cell division. A reduced rate of cell division in the leaves leads to a reduced unloading of sucrose from the phloem into the expanding cells. Consequently, the sucrose concentration in the phloem nearby the expanding cells increases, leading to an increase in turgor pressure in the phloem nearby the leaf's division zone. In the roots, cell division continues and no accumulation of sugars occurs in dividing cells, leading to only marginal changes in osmotic potential and turgor pressure in the phloem nearby the root's cell division zone. These changes in turgor pressure in the phloem of roots and sink leaves affect the turgor pressure gradients between source leaf-sink leaf and source leaf-root in such a way that relatively more carbohydrates are exported to the roots. As a consequence RWR increases after nitrogen deprivation. This hypothesis also explains the strong relationship between allocation and the plant nitrogen status.

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van der Werf, A., Nagel, O.W. Carbon allocation to shoots and roots in relation to nitrogen supply is mediated by cytokinins and sucrose: Opinion. Plant Soil 185, 21–32 (1996).

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Key words

  • cytokinins
  • modelling
  • root weight ratio
  • shoot/root ratio
  • sucrose
  • turgor pressure