Silicon: its manifold roles in plants

Authors

  • E. Epstein

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Land, Air and Water Resources—Soils and Biogeochemistry, University of California, Davis, CA, USA
      E. Epstein, Department of Land, Air and Water Resources—Soils and Biogeochemistry, University of California, Davis, CA, USA.
      Email: eqepstein@ucdavis.edu
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E. Epstein, Department of Land, Air and Water Resources—Soils and Biogeochemistry, University of California, Davis, CA, USA.
Email: eqepstein@ucdavis.edu

Abstract

The title of this essay declares that silicon does have roles in plants and all participants in this conference know that that is so. This knowledge, however, is not shared by the general community of plant biologists, who largely ignore the element. This baffling contrast is based on two sets of experience. First, higher plants can grow to maturity in nutrient solutions formulated without silicon. That has led to the conventional wisdom that silicon is not an essential element, or nutrient, and thus can be disregarded. Second, the world's plants do not grow in the benign environment of solution culture in plant biological research establishments. They grow in the field, under conditions that are often anything but benign. It is there, in the real world with its manifold stressful features, that the silicon status of plants can make a huge difference in their performance. The stresses that silicon alleviates range all the way from biotic, including diseases and pests, to abiotic such as gravity and metal toxicities. Silicon performs its functions in two ways: by the polymerization of silicic acid leading to the formation of solid amorphous, hydrated silica, and by being instrumental in the formation of organic defence compounds through alteration of gene expression. The silicon nutrition of plants is not only scientifically intriguing but also important in a world where more food will have to be wrung from a finite area of land, for that will put crops under stress.

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