Give Now

A Moment of Science

How Roots Soak Up Sunlight

Plants have evolved complex methods to ensure their survival.

spruce tree roots

Photo: David Berry (Flickr)

The roots of spruce trees.

Consider this conundrum: why would a root system, completely submerged underground for the span of its life, retain photoreceptors in its branches for sensing light in the dark soil?

You might correctly guess sunlight penetrates porous soil, and roots remaining near the surface detect it and then use it to enhance growth.

But what about roots that live deep in the ground away from surface light? Why would these roots retain their light detectors in a perpetually dark environment?

Light Travels

It turns out that these photoreceptors, which are called phytochromes and are widespread in plants, receive light that is directly transmitted down the plant stem. When leaves capture direct sunlight, they don’t simply trigger a chemical signal to communicate this to the root system.

The plant can directly transport light in less time. After leaves collect sunlight, red light from the right end of the spectrum pipes down the plant’s stem.

This red light has a longer wavelength than other light in the spectrum, and so it can travel farther. Roots directly sense this light and use it to monitor the above-ground environment.

Seed Germination

This is vital information to know as we seek to find ways to grow plants year-round. Photoreceptors optimize root growth while also controlling the plants’ most vital activities.

They activate the germination of seeds and regulate the timing of adult-stage flowering. The light they receive from above even records the size, number, and movement of all the plant’s leaves.

Although they live in the dark, these photoreceptors respond as sensitively to light as leaves do, and they help to sustain almost all the plants we see.

Sources And Further Reading:

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from A Moment of Science:

Support for Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science

Search A Moment of Science