Vulnerability of xylem vessels to cavitation in sugar maple. Scaling from individual vessels to whole branches

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The relation between xylem vessel age and vulnerability to cavitation of sugar maple (Acer saccharum Marsh.) was quantified by measuring the pressure required to force air across bordered pit membranes separating individual xylem vessels. We found that the bordered pit membranes of vessels located in current year xylem could withstand greater applied gas pressures (3.8 MPa) compared with bordered pit membranes in vessels located in older annular rings (2.0 MPa). A longitudinal transect along 6-year-old branches indicated that the pressure required to push gas across bordered pit membranes of current year xylem did not vary with distance from the growing tip. To understand the contribution of age-related changes in vulnerability to the overall resistance to cavitation, we combined data on the pressure thresholds of individual xylem vessels with measurements of the relative flow rate through each annual ring. The annual ring of the current year contributed only 16% of the total flow measured on 10-cm-long segments cut from 6-year-old branches, but it contributed more than 70% of the total flow when measured through 6-year-old branches to the point of leaf attachment. The vulnerability curve calculated using relative flow rates measured on branch segments were similar to vulnerability curves measured on 6-year-old branches (pressure that reduces hydraulic conductance by 50% = 1.6-2.4 MPa), whereas the vulnerability curve calculated using relative flow rates measured on 6-year-old branches were similar to ones measured on the extension growth of the current year (pressure that reduces hydraulic conductance by 50% = 3.8 MPa). These data suggest that, in sugar maple, the xylem of the current year can withstand larger xylem tensions than older wood and dominates water delivery to leaves.

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Plant Physiology

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