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5.4.3 - Sugar metabolism and compartmentation in sinks

The fate of imported photoassimilates depends on sink cell function. In broad terms, imported photoassimilates are primarily used to provide carbon skeletons or signals for growth or storage. Some photoassimilates provide energy for maintenance. Relative flows of photoassimilates to these fates change during cell development and sometimes over shorter time scales depending upon a plant’s physiological state.

(a) Cell maintenance

Irrespective of sink function, a portion of imported sugars is respired to provide energy (ATP) for maintenance of cell function and structure. Most of this energy is required for continual turnover of cellular constituents such as enzymes and mem-branes. Rates of synthesis and degradation of individual macromolecules vary widely, as does the energy invested in different molecular configurations, so sugar demand for maintenance respiration could differ substantially between tissues.

(b) Cell growth

In growing organs, photoassimilates become substrates for synthesis of new cell material either directly or after biochemical conversions. Other fates for sugars include catabolism in energy-generating pathways which support growth (growth respiration) and storage in vacuolar pools. Stored sugars make an osmotic contribution to growing cells and can act as energy stores in species such as sugar cane. In roots of young barley plants, 40% and 55% of imported sugars are respired and used in structural growth, respectively. Stored sugars turn over each 30 min but account for only 1% of root weight.

(c) Reserve storage in cells

In mature cells, imported sugars enter physical (e.g. vacuoles) and chemical (e.g. starch) storage pools with lesser amounts diverted to respiration (15–20%) and structural components. In contrast to growth sinks, stored carbohydrates are ultimately retrieved from storage pools and used by other storage sinks (e.g. germinating seeds) or translocated to support growth and storage processes elsewhere in the plant. Carbohydrate storage can be brief (hours, days) or extend over considerable periods (months to years). Short-term storage of carbohydrates in stems and roots buffers phloem sap sugar concentrations against changes in photoassimilate export from photosynthetic leaves.

Sugars can also be stored in soluble forms by compartmentation into vacuoles. In this case, the tonoplast provides a physical barrier to protect stored sugars from molecular interconversion by cytoplasmic sugar-metabolising enzymes. Vacuolar sugars are accumulated as sucrose, hexoses or fructans (short-chain polymers of fructose). Sucrose and hexoses can accumulate to molar concentrations (0.1–1.5M) in storage parenchyma cells of roots, stems and fruits. For instance, tap roots of sugar beet and stems of sugar cane accumulate 1M sucrose thereby providing 90% of the world’s sucrose. Hexoses are a common form of sugar storage in fruit, contributing to sweetness of edible fruits such as tomato, grape, orange and cucumber. The wine industry depends upon hexoses accumulating to high concentrations (1.5M) in grape berries to fuel fermentation of ‘must’ in wine making. Fructans are stored in significant quantities in leaf sheaths and stems of temperate grasses and cereals. In pasture species, they contribute to forage quality, and in cereals constitute an assimilate pool that is mobilised to support grain filling.

Alternatively, imported sugars may be stored as starch along the axial transport pathway (available for remobilisation to buffer phloem sap sugar concentrations) or in more long term storage pools of terminal sink organs such as tubers, fruits and seeds. The proportion of photoassimilates diverted into starch differs widely between species and organs. Starch accounts for some 90% of dry weight of potato tubers and cereal grains.

The chemistry of storage products can change during organ development. For instance, starch is the principal storage carbohydrate in young tomato fruit. Later in fruit development, stored starch is hydrolysed and contributes to hexose accumulation in vacuoles of fruit storage parenchyma cells. In other fruits, significant switches between hexose and sucrose accumulation occur during development. All these changes are brought about by ontogenetic shifts in activities of sugar-metabolising enzymes.