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How Does Auxin Promote Phototropism?

Phototropism is a growth response in plants where they bend or grow towards a light source. This phenomenon is primarily regulated by the plant hormone auxin. Understanding how auxin promotes phototropism involves exploring the mechanisms by which auxin distribution affects cell elongation and directional growth. This article delves into the process of phototropism and the role of auxin in facilitating this crucial adaptive response.

What is Phototropism?

Phototropism is the directional growth of plants in response to light. It can be positive (growth towards light) or negative (growth away from light). Most commonly, phototropism refers to the positive phototropic response seen in shoots, where plants grow towards a light source to maximize light absorption for photosynthesis.

The Role of Auxin in Phototropism

1. Auxin Distribution

Auxin, particularly indole-3-acetic acid (IAA), plays a central role in phototropism. Auxin is synthesized in the shoot apical meristem and young leaves and is distributed throughout the plant. In the context of phototropism, the distribution of auxin becomes asymmetric in response to light.

2. Perception of Light

Phototropism begins with the perception of light by photoreceptors, primarily phototropins. Phototropins are sensitive to blue light and trigger a signaling cascade when they detect directional light. These photoreceptors are located in the cells at the tip of the shoot.

3. Asymmetric Auxin Distribution

When one side of the plant shoot is exposed to light, phototropins detect the light and cause auxin to be redistributed to the shaded side of the shoot. This results in a higher concentration of auxin on the side away from the light source and a lower concentration on the side facing the light.

4. Differential Cell Elongation

Auxin promotes cell elongation by loosening the cell walls, allowing cells to expand. The higher concentration of auxin on the shaded side of the shoot causes those cells to elongate more than the cells on the light-exposed side. This differential cell elongation results in the bending of the shoot towards the light source.

Mechanisms of Auxin Action in Phototropism

1. Activation of Proton Pumps

Auxin activates proton pumps in the plasma membrane, which transport hydrogen ions (protons) into the cell wall. This acidifies the cell wall, lowering its pH.

2. Activation of Expansins

The acidic environment activates enzymes called expansins, which loosen the cellulose fibers in the cell wall. This loosening process makes the cell wall more flexible and capable of expanding.

3. Water Uptake and Cell Expansion

As the cell wall becomes more flexible, water uptake into the cell increases, leading to cell expansion. This process occurs more on the shaded side of the shoot where auxin concentration is higher, causing those cells to elongate more and resulting in the bending of the shoot towards the light.

Experimental Evidence for Auxin’s Role in Phototropism

1. Darwin’s Experiments

Charles Darwin and his son Francis conducted early experiments on phototropism in the late 19th century. They observed that when the tips of canary grass coleoptiles were covered, the plants did not bend towards the light. This led to the conclusion that the tip of the shoot perceives light and sends a signal to the lower parts to cause bending.

2. Boysen-Jensen Experiments

In the early 20th century, Peter Boysen-Jensen demonstrated that a chemical signal (later identified as auxin) is responsible for phototropism. By separating the tip of the shoot from the rest of the plant with a gelatin block (which allows the passage of chemicals but not cells), he showed that phototropic bending still occurred, suggesting the involvement of a mobile chemical signal.

3. Went’s Experiments

Frits Went’s experiments in the 1920s further elucidated the role of auxin. He placed agar blocks containing auxin on decapitated coleoptiles and observed that the direction of bending depended on the placement of the auxin-containing block. This confirmed that auxin distribution causes differential growth and bending towards light.


Auxin is a key regulator of phototropism, facilitating the bending of plant shoots towards light. By redistributing auxin to the shaded side of the shoot, plants create an environment where differential cell elongation occurs, causing the shoot to bend towards the light source. This adaptive response maximizes light absorption for photosynthesis, enhancing the plant’s growth and survival.

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