Xylem hydraulic physiology: The functional backbone of terrestrial plant productivity

Land plants are completely dependent on a passive system of water transport for their survival. The great bulk of the xylemtissue is non-living and consequently has no short term capacity to acclimate or adjust to changes in hydraulic demand. Yet there exists an extraordinary degree of coordination between the hydraulic and photosynthetic systems of plants that defies developmental explanation. The connection between hydraulic capacity and photosynthetic assimilation arises as a product of the shared stomatal pathway for water and CO2 exchange in the leaf. A combination of optimization in both water use and structural xylem investment has led to a situation in vascular plants where the form and function of all
individuals is moulded by the link between hydraulic and photosynthetic systems. Unlike competing models of hormonal control of gas exchange, hydraulic limitation of productivity under optimal and drought conditions accounts for much of the observed variation in plant gas exchange in natural systems. The plant water transport system places a hard physical limit to plant productivity and survival. Identifying the developmental control of key xylem traits will yield the potential for achieving new performance capabilities in plants.