Quantification of vessel embolisms by direct observation: a comparison of two methods

John Pate, M.J. Canny

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    When freshly cut segments of naturally decorticated steles of horizontal roots of the Australian grass tree (Xanthorrhea preissii) are subjected to gentle suction, bubbles of gas sometimes appear, as well as liquid, in capillaries attached to the aspirated ends of the steles. We tested the hypothesis that this gas comes from vessels embolized in the intact xylem stream, and that the gas volume extruded is therefore an effective measure of the extent of this embolism. To do this, twin samples were taken from individual roots of X. preissii in the field, one was fast-frozen intact for subsequent estimation of vessel embolisms in the cryo-scanning electron microscope (CSEM), the other 15-cm segment rapidly assessed for volume of gas aspirated into a standard micropipette tube. The two measures mutually confirmed one another by showing a strong positive correlation between numbers of embolized Vessels and extracted gas volume. Similar gas volumes were obtained from replicate root segments excised directly from a root when the ends of the segment were frozen before excision, and aspiration conducted after subsequent thawing of the ends under water. The pattern of changes in embolisms during unstressed conditions in early summer, shown by both CSEM and aspiration, indicated almost no embolisms before dawn, followed by a rapid rise to a peak in mid morning, than a progressive loss of embolisms in late afternoon. It was also shown that the amount of embolism did not change with time after excision of the roots up to at least 30 min. A comparison of changes in leaf transpiration with gas volumes in steles during a 24-h cycle at peak transpiration stress in mid summer showed rapid rates of transpiration in early morning and late afternoon, with an intervening period of low water loss during the rest of the day. Numbers of embolisms rose to an early morning peak, followed by apparent repair of these before noon. There was a second spate of embolisms in late afternoon, followed by complete refilling of all xylem with liquid bq; an hour or so after dusk. All vessels then remained fully recharged until the following dawn. We believe that aspiration is a direct and reliable technique, which offers a simple, inexpensive means of assessing the relative extent of embolism of vessels in xylem, and a means to test earlier findings bq the other direct method of the CSEM. In a broad contest, the technique should provide new opportunities for evaluating water relations of the xylem of whole plants.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)33-44
    JournalNew Phytologist
    Publication statusPublished - 1999

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