Evidence for distinct isotopic composition of sap and tissue water in tree stems: consequences for plant water source identification

Journal Article

For decades, theory has upheld that plants do not fractionate water isotopes as they move across the soil-root interface or along plant stems. This theory is now being challenged by several recent studies reporting that the water held in woody stems has an isotopic composition that cannot be attributed to any potential water source. Isotopic offsets between stem and source water still need to be explained, as they prevent identifying unambiguously tree water’s origin from water isotope measurements. Here we show that isotopic offsets between stem and source water can be explained by micrometer-scale water isotope heterogeneity within woody stems and soil micropores. Using a novel technique to extract sap water in xylem conduits separately from the water held in other xylem tissues, we show that these non-conductive xylem tissues are more depleted in deuterium than sap water. We also report that, in cut stems and well-watered potted plants, the isotopic composition of sap water reflects well that of irrigation water, demonstrating that no isotopic fractionation occurs during root water uptake or the sap water extraction process. Previous studies showed that isotopic heterogeneity also exists in soils at the pore scale where water adsorbed onto soil particles is more depleted than capillary/mobile soil water. Data collected at a beech ( Fagus sylvatica ) forest indicate that sap water matches best the capillary/mobile soil water from deep soil horizons, indicating that micrometer-scale water isotope heterogeneity in soils and stems must be accounted for to unambiguously identify where trees obtain their water within catchments.

Significance Statement

Forests are prime regulators of the water cycle over land. They return, via transpiration, a large fraction of precipitation back to the atmosphere, influence surface runoff, groundwater recharge or stream flow, and enhance the recycling of atmospheric moisture inland from the ocean. The isotopic composition of water in woody stems can provide unique information on the role forests play in the water cycle only if it can be unambiguously related to the isotopic composition of source water. Here, we report a previously overlooked isotopic fractionation of stem water whereby non-conductive tissues are more depleted in deuterium than sap water, and propose a new technique to extract sap water separately from bulk stem water to unambiguously identify plant water sources.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Barbeta, A; Burlett, R; Martín-Gómez, P; Fréjaville, B; Devert, N; Wingate, L; Domec, J-C; Ogée, J

Published Date

  • 2020

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1101/2020.06.18.160002