We inhale oxygen (O2) and exhale carbon dioxide (CO2), so it seems that we don’t need CO2 to survive. Since plants do the reverse – absorb carbon dioxide and expel oxygen – many think that plants don’t need oxygen to survive. Is this correct?

Plants can’t live without oxygen. They need it to (1) distribute minerals and nutrients to the entire plant; (2) to capture energy from sunlight in photosynthesis; and (3) to convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into food such as carbohydrates, glucose, and cellulose.

At the same time, the answer is always more complex and interesting than it looks. Let’s dive in and look at some very curious details!

Plants Without Oxygen: Is This Possible?


Table of Contents

1 Plants Without Oxygen: Is This Possible?

Both plants and animals breathe in, convert gases, and breathe them out either as oxygen (O2) or carbon dioxide (CO2). However, animal respiration uses lungs and bloodstreams while plant respiration is through stomata and cells. They also use oxygen in different ways.

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Plants are all around us, so familiar, that we mostly take them for granted. Yet, many people have misconceptions about how plants breathe. Let’s clarify two words:

Transpiration is when: (1) roots absorb water from the soil, (2) water distributes minerals to stems and leaves, and (3) pores (stomata) of leaves diffuse water vapor and oxygen into the air.

Respiration is either (1) breathing or (2) using oxygen to release energy from food. In this article, we talk about this second meaning. The two (2) types of respiration are: aerobic (using oxygen to get energy from food) and anaerobic (getting energy from food without using oxygen).

FACTOID: Despite what you may have heard, plants do need oxygen for transpiration (to distribute minerals and nutrients to all the parts of the plant); for photosynthesis (to capture energy from light); and for food production (to convert light, water, and CO2 into starch, cellulose, and glucose).

Let’s do a quick review of how plants do all that with oxygen.


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Overall, however, plants produce more oxygen than they need, so don’t worry about plants sucking up the oxygen in your room while you’re sleeping. There’s no need to remove plants from a hospital room. In fact, plants can clean up indoor air as well as enrich it with oxygen.

How Plants Use Oxygen: Part 3 – Transpiration & Respiration

Plants breathe by transpiration as well as by respiration. These processes are different but both use oxygen. In other words, plants can’t breathe without oxygen.

Transpiration and respiration are separate processes that happen at the same time (they also sound almost the same). This might be why many confuse them. To clarify:

Transpiration is when water moves from the roots to the cells, stems, and leaves to distribute minerals and nutrients throughout the plant. Oxygen, which is necessary for water to form, is a critical part of transpiration.

Respiration is when plants absorb light (photosynthesis), and convert it with water, and carbon dioxide into food (like starch and glucose). The stomata (tiny pores) on leaves expel the extra, unneeded stuff (like water vapor and oxygen) into the air. Without oxygen, plants cannot respire.

FACTOID: Aerobic respiration is when cells use oxygen to release energy from food. Anaerobic respiration is when cells don’t use oxygen to release energy from food and instead use fermentation.

What Can Live Without Oxygen?

Nowadays, No plant can live without oxygen. In fact, all green plants, algae, moss, and almost all organisms on earth need oxygen. The exceptions are tiny, including microscopic animals in the deep sea, a parasite that lives in salmon, and some bacteria.

Aside from the E. coli bacteria that can live in both aerobic (with oxygen) or anaerobic (no oxygen) environments, there are also facultative anaerobes that thrive in oxygen as well as when there’s no oxygen. They grow by either anaerobic respiration or by fermentation.

While all plants need oxygen, some animals live in zero-oxygen environments. Here are some examples:

Loricifera (Pliciloricus enigmatus): This is a microscopic sea animal that lives in the extremely salty, zero-oxygen environment of the Atalante Basin, about 3,500 feet under the Mediterranean Sea. Without its tapered mouth, it is less than one millimeter (160–268 µm) long.H. salminicola: This must be the only animal on earth that doesn’t need to breathe. This tiny parasite is about 10 millimeters long. It infects the muscle tissue of salmon in Oregon, Canada, Japan and Alaska. The parasite creates white, tapioca-like cysts.Archaea: These are a group of one-celled organisms that can theoretically turn metal into meat. Archaea live in extremely salty environments (halophiles); in extremely hot locations (thermophiles); or produce natural methane gas (methanogens).Clostridium: About 3-4 µm in size, they live in the air, soil, water, decaying plants, and sometimes in intestines of newborns as well as of healthy men and women. They’re called “anaerobes” because they don’t need oxygen to live. In fact, oxygen can kill them.

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Bacteroides: These microscopic pathogens (about 0.5 to 6.0 micrometers long) are helpful bacteria when they’re in the mouth, throat, or intestines; they protect against colitis. However, they cause inflammation and abscesses when they’re in anaerobic infections. They’re extremely resistant to many antibiotics.