Whilst it is claimed that only the taxman can get blood out of a stone, it seems that some plants can abstract water from stone-like minerals.
Arguably, ahead of light, water is the most important abiotic factor that plants need and obtain from the environment. Although water is essential to plant life, it is not always available in sufficient amounts, and plants have evolved many adaptations that enable them to cope with water-limited environments – e.g. xerophytes in extremely arid areas, and halophytes in saline habitats. One strategy that was hitherto unrecognised is the extraordinary (I don’t think that’s too strong a word to use) ability of some plants to obtain large parts of their life-giving and -sustaining water from a mineral in the soil.
Analysing the isotopic composition of xylem sap in the rock rose Helianthemum squamatum, Sara Palacio et al. showed that it was similar to that of the water of crystallization in gypsum – CaSO4.2H2O, an inorganic mineral common in the plant’s environment. And, significantly, the composition of the water in the xylem differed from that of free water – i.e. that which is freely available within the soil (albeit in short supply!), the more usually assumed water source for plants. This therefore provided strong evidence that the plants were using the mineral as a water source – especially in the summer months when it accounted for 70–90% of the water used by these shallow-rooted plants.
Several other ‘coexisting shallow-rooted, sub-shrub species’ (the gypsum-specialist Lepidium subulatum – a gypsophyte – and the ‘non-specialists’ Linum suffruticosum and Helianthemum syriacum) behaved in an isotopically similar way to H. squamatum, suggesting that this phenomenon may be a widespread strategy of water-extraction by plants in this environment.
Although it is as yet unclear how the plants get hold of the water from this unusual source, it is suggested that high temperatures in the environment may cause the water to evaporate from the mineral when it can then be acquired by the plant.
Whilst this is a neat enough solution (pun recognised, but not intended!) for life on Earth, the authors conclude that ‘given the widespread occurrence of gypsum in dry lands throughout the Earth and in Mars, these results may have important implications for arid land reclamation and exobiology’. So, botanical research that may truly be ‘out of this world’!
[Intrigued by these intriguing gypsophytes? Then why not indulge your interest and read more of Sara Palacio et al.’s research in ‘Plants living on gypsum: beyond the specialist model’? – Ed.]