New evidence for large negative xylem pressures and their measurement by the pressure chamber method


John S. Sperry, Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.


Pressure probe measurements have been interpreted as showing that xylem pressures below c. –0.4 MPa do not exist and that pressure chamber measurements of lower negative pressures are invalid. We present new evidence supporting the pressure chamber technique and the existence of xylem pressures well below –0.4 MPa. We deduced xylem pressures in water-stressed stem xylem from the following experiment: (1) loss of hydraulic conductivity in hydrated stem xylem (xylem pressure = atmospheric pressure) was induced by forcing compressed air into intact xylem conduits; (2) loss of hydraulic conductivity from cavitation and embolism in dehydrating stems was measured, and (3) the xylem pressure in dehydrated stems was deduced as being equal and opposite to the air pressure causing the same loss of hydraulic conductivity in hydrated stems. Pressures determined in this way are only valid if cavitation was caused by air entering the xylem conduits (air-seeding). Deduced xylem pressure showed a one-to-one correspondence with pressure chamber measurements for 12 species (woody angiosperms and gymnosperms); data extended to c. –10 MPa. The same correspondence was obtained under field conditions in Betula occidentalis Hook., where pressure differences between air- and water-filled conduits were induced by a combination of in situ xylem water pressure and applied positive air pressure. It is difficult to explain these results if xylem pressures were above –0.4 MPa, if the pressure chamber was inaccurate, and if cavitation occurred by some mechanism other than air-seeding. A probable reason why the pressure probe does not register large negative pressures is that, just as cavitation within the probe limits its calibration to pressures above c. –0.5 MPa, cavitation limits its measurement range in situ.