CIE A Level Biology (9700) 2019-2021

Revision Notes

7.2.10 Phloem: Mass Flow

Phloem: Mass Flow

  • The Mass Flow Hypothesis was the model initially used to explain the movement of assimilates in the phloem tissue
  • The mass flow hypothesis was modelled by Ernst Münch in 1930. His simple model consisted of:
    • Two partially permeable membranes containing solutions with different concentrations of ions (one dilute the other concentrated)
    • These two membranes were placed into two chambers containing water and were connected via a passageway
    • The two membranes were joined via a tube
    • As the membranes were surrounded by water, the water moved by osmosis across the membrane containing the more concentrated solution which forced the solution towards the membrane containing the more dilute solution (where water was being forced out of due to hydrostatic pressure)
  • Scientists now support a modified version of this hypothesis – the pressure flow gradient

Phloem_ the mass flow hypothesis, downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes

An illustration of Münch’s model for mass flow in phloem tissue

Pressure (hydrostatic) flow gradient

  • Phloem sap (containing sucrose and other organic solutes) moves by mass flow up and down the plant
  • Carbohydrates are generally transported in plants in the form of sucrose because:
    • It allows for efficient energy transfer and increased energy storage (sucrose is a disaccharide and therefore contains more energy)
    • It is less reactive than glucose as it is a non-reducing sugar and therefore no intermediate reactions occur as it is being transported
  • The advantage of mass flow is that it moves the organic solutes about faster than diffusion
  • In xylem tissue the pressure difference that causes mass flow occurs because of a water potential gradient between the soil and leaf (this requires no energy input by the plant)
  • However in phloem tissue energy is required to create pressure differences for the mass flow of the organic solutes
  • The pressure difference is generated by actively loading sucrose into the sieve elements at the source (usually a photosynthesising leaf or storage organ) which lowers the water potential in the sap
  • This results in water moving into the sieve elements as it travels down the water potential gradient by osmosis
  • The presence of water within the sieve elements increases the hydrostatic or turgor pressure at the source and as solutes (eg. sucrose) are removed / unloaded from the sieve elements causing water to follow by osmosis at the sink (creating a low hydrostatic pressure), a hydrostatic pressure gradient occurs
  • The pressure difference between the source and the sink results in the mass flow of water (containing the dissolved organic solutes) from the high hydrostatic pressure area to the low hydrostatic pressure area
  • The mass flow of organic solutes within the phloem tissue occurs above and below the sources (which is typically photosynthesising leaves). Therefore sap flows upwards and downwards within a plant

Phloem_ Mass flow from source to sink, downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes

The translocation of phloem sap (sucrose and other organic solutes) due to a hydrostatic pressure gradient from the source to the sink

Exam Tip

Remember that the source is not necessarily the leaves and the sink is not necessarily the roots. Phloem sap moves up and down the plant (although it will only move in one direction per sieve tube). The hydrostatic pressure gradient is dependent on water moving in and out of the xylem vessels by osmosis.

Author: Catherine

Cate has over 20 years’ experience teaching Biology to IGCSE, IB and A-level students in seven different countries across Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East. This has given her a fine appreciation of different cultures, places and teaching methods. Cate has a keen interest in producing Biology revision resources that will help students engage with the subject.
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