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What carries cytokinins to the rest of the plant?

Cytokinins are a class of plant hormones that regulate various aspects of plant growth and development. Some key functions of cytokinins include promoting cell division, breaking seed dormancy, delaying senescence, and stimulating growth in lateral buds. Cytokinins are synthesized primarily in root tips and developing seeds, but must be transported to other parts of the plant in order to exert their effects. This article will examine the mechanisms by which cytokinins are carried from their sites of synthesis to distant tissues and organs in plants.

Overview of Cytokinin Synthesis and Transport

Cytokinins are adenine-derived compounds that are synthesized through a multi-step pathway involving several enzymes. The rate-limiting steps in cytokinin biosynthesis take place in root tips, young leaves, and developing seeds. Newly synthesized cytokinins can act locally, but there must also be mechanisms for their long-distance transport to other regions where they are needed.

Long-distance transport occurs via two pathways: through the xylem from roots to shoots, and through the phloem from sources to sinks. The relative contribution of each pathway depends on the specific cytokinin, the plant species, and environmental conditions. Transport through the plant vascular system allows cytokinins to coordinate growth and development between roots and shoots.

Xylem Transport of Cytokinins

The xylem is responsible for the long-distance transport of water and minerals from roots to shoots. Xylem sap contains cytokinins that are carried passively along with the transpirational flow. Cytokinins produced in root tips enter the xylem and travel upwards to exert their effects on shoot growth and development.

Xylem transport is likely the predominant long-distance transport pathway for the cytokinin trans-zeatin. Levels of trans-zeatin in xylem sap are often much higher than in phloem sap. The concentration of trans-zeatin in root xylem sap is also closely correlated with shoot growth rates. These findings point to the importance of xylem transport of cytokinins from roots to shoots.

Factors Affecting Xylem Cytokinin Transport

Several factors can influence the rate of cytokinin transport through the xylem:

  • Transpiration rate – Higher transpiration pulls more xylem sap, carrying more cytokinins.
  • Root pressure – Increased root pressure forces more cytokinins into xylem vessels.
  • Drought stress – Causes lower cytokinin transport rates.
  • Nutrient supply – Better supplied plants show increased cytokinin transport.

By regulating xylem cytokinin levels, plants can coordinate shoot growth with water availability and nutrient status.

Phloem Transport of Cytokinins

In addition to xylem transport, the phloem also facilitates long-distance cytokinin movement. The phloem translocates sugars and other solutes from sources (photosynthetic leaves) to sinks (fruits, roots, etc). Cytokinins travel along with the phloem stream, although the extent of their transport depends on the specific compound.

For some cytokinins like zeatin riboside, levels are higher in phloem than xylem, pointing to a greater role for phloem mobility. Transport through phloem allows cytokinins to reach tissues that aren’t directly connected to xylem flow, such as fruits and storage organs.

Phloem transport is believed to be particularly important for redirecting cytokinins to developing seeds, which are strong cytokinin sinks. The selective loading of cytokinins into phloem suggests an active, regulated transport process.

Mechanism of Phloem Cytokinin Transport

Several transporter proteins have been identified that actively shuttle cytokinins across cell membranes into phloem sieve tubes:

  • PURINE PERMEASE 14 (PUP14) – transports cytokinins across plasma membrane
  • OCTOPINE/NORKOPINE PERMEASE (OCT/NOP) – may load cytokinins into phloem
  • PURINE UPTAKE TRANSPORTER (PUT) – localized to phloem, transports cytokinins

Expression of these cytokinin transporters is regulated by factors like light and shoot meristem activity, allowing flexible control over phloem cytokinin content.

Contribution of Xylem vs. Phloem Transport

Both xylem and phloem transport pathways make significant contributions to the long-distance movement of cytokinins between plant organs. The relative importance of each route varies depending on the cytokinin species, environmental factors, and direction of transport.

Some general patterns that have emerged:

  • Xylem is predominant for root-to-shoot transport
  • Phloem is more important for shoot-to-root transport
  • Trans-zeatin mobility relies mainly on xylem
  • Zeatin riboside transport occurs mostly through phloem

Flexibility in cytokinin transport pathways allows plants to optimally distribute these vital hormones even under changing conditions.

Cytokinin Transport and Signaling

The successful transport of cytokinins to target tissues is only part of the story. Once there, cytokinins must be perceived by receptor proteins to trigger signaling cascades that alter gene expression and growth.

Local cytokinin levels are controlled by a balance between transport, biosynthesis, degradation, and signal perception. If transport rates exceed signaling capacity, cytokinins can move on to other sink tissues. This system prevents cytokinin accumulation in excess of what is needed for a specific growth response.

Factors like stress can impair cytokinin signaling. Even if transport continues, reduced perception limits the hormonal response. The interconnectivity between transport, signaling, and action is an important control point for optimal resource allocation.

Applications of Cytokinin Transport Knowledge

Understanding the mechanisms and regulation of cytokinin transport has provided useful applications for agriculture and biotechnology:

  • Breeding crops with increased cytokinin transport capacity for higher yields.
  • Manipulating root-to-shoot signaling for improved nutrient uptake.
  • Increasing sink strength in fruits/seeds to draw more cytokinins.
  • Using cytokinin profiles for early stress detection.
  • Modeling to predict plant growth and productivity.

Further knowledge on optimizing cytokinin delivery to enhance crop plant vigor and stress resilience is an important goal for feeding an expanding human population.


Cytokinins are master regulators of plant development that must be transported over long distances from their sites of synthesis to exert their effects. The xylem and phloem serve as the highways for cytokinin movement around the plant body. Xylem transport allows root-sourced cytokinins to stimulate shoot growth, while phloem mobility redirects cytokinins to developing seeds and storage organs. Selective transporters actively load specific cytokinins into the phloem stream. Tuning cytokinin transport in response to environmental cues provides flexibility in plant growth and resource allocation. Understanding the transport biology of these vital plant hormones opens up numerous applications for improving agricultural productivity.