Sources and Sinks

Sources include any exporting organs, typically mature leaves, that are capable of producing photosynthate in excess of their own needs. The term photosynthate refers to products of photosynthesis. Another type of source is a storage organ during the exporting phase of its development. For example, the storage root of the biennial wild beet (Beta maritima) is a sink during the growing season of the first year, when it accumulates sugars received from the source leaves. During the second growing season the same root becomes a source; the sugars are remobilized and utilized to produce a new shoot, which ultimately becomes reproductive.

Sinks include any nonphotosynthetic organs of the plant and organs that do not produce enough photosynthetic products to support their own growth or storage needs. Roots, tubers, developing fruits, and immature leaves, which must import carbohydrate for normal development, are all examples of sink tissues.

Source-to-Sink Pathways Follow Anatomic and Developmental Patterns

Although the overall pattern of transport in the phloem can be stated simply as source-to-sink movement, the specific pathways involved are often more complex. Not all sources supply all sinks on a plant; rather, certain sources preferentially supply specific sinks. In the case of herbaceous plants, such as sugar beet and soybean, the following generalizations can be made.

Proximity.   The proximity of the source to the sink is a significant factor. The upper mature leaves on a plant usually provide photosynthates to the growing shoot tip and young, immature leaves; the lower leaves supply predominantly the root system. Intermediate leaves export in both directions, bypassing the intervening mature leaves.

Development.   The importance of various sinks may shift during plant development. Whereas the root and shoot apices  are  usually  the  major  sinks  during  vegetative growth, fruits generally become the dominant sinks dur-
ing reproductive development, particularly for adjacent and other nearby leaves.

Vascular connections. Source leaves preferentially supply sinks with which they have direct vascular connections. In the shoot system, for example, a given leaf is generally connected via the vascular system to other leaves directly above or below it on the stem. Such a vertical row of leaves is called an orthostichy. The number of internodes between leaves on the same orthostichy varies with the species.


Water is the most abundant substance transported in the phloem. Dissolved in the water are the translocated solutes, mainly carbohydrates. Sucrose is the sugar most commonly transported in sieve elements. There is always some sucrose in sieve element sap, and it can reach concentrations of 0.3 to 0.9 M.

Nitrogen is found in the phloem largely in amino acids and amides, especially glutamate and aspartate and their respective amides, glutamine and asparagine. Reported levels of amino acids and organic acids vary widely, even for the same species, but they are usually low compared with carbohydrates.

Almost all the endogenous plant hormones, including auxin, gibberellins, cytokinins, and abscisic acid, have been found in sieve elements. The long distance transport of hormones is thought to occur at least partly in the sieve elements. Nucleotide phosphates and proteins have also been found in phloem sap. Proteins found in the phloem include filamentous P proteins (which are involved in the sealing of wounded sieve elements), protein kinases (protein phosphorylation), thioredoxin (disulfide  reduction),  ubiquitin (protein turnover),  chaperones  (protein  folding),  and  protease inhibitors (protection of phloem proteins from degradation and defense against phloem-feeding insects)

Inorganic solutes that move in the phloem include potassium, magnesium, phosphate, and chloride (see Table 10.2). In contrast, nitrate, calcium, sulfur, and iron are relatively immobile in the phloem.

The composition of phloem sap from castor bean (Ricinus communis), collected as an exudate from cuts in the phloem

Component                              Concentration (mg mL-1)

Sugars                                                80.0-106.0

Amino acids                                         5.2

Organic acids                                       2.0-3.2

Protein                                                1.45-2.20

Potassium                                            2.3-4.4

Chloride                                              0.355-0.675

Phosphate                                           0.350-0.550

Magnesium                                          0.109-0.122


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