In botany, a stoma (also stomate; plural stomata) is a tiny opening or pore, found mostly on the underside of a plant leaf and used for gas exchange. The pore is formed by a pair of specialized parenchyma cells known as guard cells which are responsible for regulating the size of the opening. Air containing carbon dioxide enters the plant through these openings where it is used in photosynthesis and respiration. Oxygen produced by photosynthesis in the spongy layer cells (parenchyma cells with pectin) of the leaf interior exits through these same openings. Also, water vapor is released into the atmosphere through these pores in a process called transpiration.
Stomata are present in the sporophyte generation of all land plant groups except liverworts. Dicotyledons usually have more stomata on the lower epidermis than the upper epidermis. Monocotyledons, on the other hand, usually have the same number of stomata on the two epidermes. In plants with floating leaves, stomata may be found only on the upper epidermis; submerged leaves may lack stomata entirely.
Carbon dioxide, a key reactant in photosynthesis, is present in the atmosphere at a concentration of about 384 ppm (as of March 2008). Most plants require the stomata to be open during daytime. The problem is that the air spaces in the leaf are saturated with water vapor, which exits the leaf through the stomata (this is known as transpiration). Therefore, plants cannot gain carbon dioxide without simultaneously losing water vapor.
However, plants possess another enzyme that can also fix carbon dioxide: PEP carboxylase or PEPCase. This enzyme has high carbon dioxide affinity, so a given rate of carbon dioxide fixation can be achieved with less stomatal opening, and hence less water loss. The catch is that the products of carbon fixation by PEPCase must be converted in an energy-intensive process to continue through the carbon reactions of photosynthesis. As a result, the PEPCase alternative is only preferable where water is more limiting but light — which provides the energy in this case — is plentiful, and/or where high temperatures increase the solubility of oxygen relative to that of carbon dioxide, magnifying Rubisco's oxygenation problem.
However, most plants do not have the aforementioned facility and must therefore open and close their stomata during the daytime in response to changing conditions, such as light intensity, humidity, and carbon dioxide concentration. It is not entirely certain how these responses work. However, the basic mechanism involves regulation of osmotic pressure.
When conditions are conducive to stomatal opening (e.g., high light intensity and high humidity), a proton pump drives protons (H+) from the guard cells. This means that the cells' electrical potential becomes increasingly negative. The negative potential opens potassium voltage - gated channels and so an uptake of potassium ions (K+) occurs. To maintain this internal negative voltage so that entry of potassium ions does not stop, negative ions balance the influx of potassium. in some cases chloride ions enter, while in other plants the organic ion malate is produced in guard cells. This in turn increases the osmotic pressure inside the cell, drawing in water through osmosis. This increases the cell's volume and turgor pressure. Then, because of rings of cellulose microfibrils that prevent the width of the guard cells from swelling, and thus only allow the extra turgor pressure to elongate the guard cells, whose ends are held firmly in place by surrounding epidermal cells, the two guard cells lengthen by bowing apart from one another, creating an open pore through which gas can move.
When the roots begin to sense a water shortage in the soil, abscisic acid (ABA) is released. ABA binds to receptor proteins in the guard cells' plasma membrane and cytosol, which first raises the pH of the cytosol of the cells and cause the concentration of free Ca2+ to increase in the cytosol due to influx from outside the cell and release of Ca2+ from internal stores such as the endoplasmic reticulum and vacuoles. This causes the chloride (Cl-) and inorganic ions to exit the cells. Secondly, this stops the uptake of any further K+ into the cells and subsequentally the loss of K+. The loss of these solutes causes a reduction in osmotic pressure, thus making the cell flaccid and so closing the stomatal pores.
Interestingly, guard cells have more chloroplasts than the other epidermal cells from which guard cells are derived. Their function is controversial.
However, because water loss occurs by diffusion, the transpiration rate depends on two things: the gradient in humidity from the leaf's internal air spaces to the outside air, and the diffusion resistance provided by the stomatal pores. Stomatal resistance (or its inverse, stomatal conductance) can therefore be calculated from the transpiration rate and humidity gradient. (The humidity gradient is the humidity inside the leaf, determined from leaf temperature based on the assumption that the leaf's air spaces are saturated with vapor, minus the humidity of the ambient air, which is measured directly.) This allows scientists to learn how stomata respond to changes in environmental conditions, such as light intensity, humidity, or carbon dioxide concentration.