6. Cell Energy - Bubbling Plants

Elodea nuttallii: Image courtesy of Christopher Fischer.Elodea nuttallii: Image courtesy of Christopher Fischer.Summary
Students often believe that only animals “breathe”, but all things exchange gases with their environment. It’s just that the process is not so obvious in plants. Elodea is a very common water plant that can be found in aquarium stores. As photosynthesis occurs, oxygen is produced as a by-product. Elodea releases bubbles of oxygen as it photosynthesizes. In fact, the number or volume of bubbles in a certain amount of time can be used as a rough measure of photosynthetic rate.

The measure is rough because oxygen dissolves in water so may not always appear as a gas. Moreover, most light sources produce heat, which causes the water temperature to increase, which in turn causes lower gas solubility, and thus may produce bubbles just by turning the light on. Finally, the size of a bubble is not constant thus counting the number of bubbles per unit time is only a very rough measure. The total volume of gas produced is a better measure but again falls victim to the other caveats. The best measure is to use a dissolved oxygen meter which unfortunately costs a fair bit of money (between $400 to over $1000). You can also try disposable dissolved oxygen tests (see the Sources section of the Water Analysis activity).

An important note is that freshly cut Elodea stems produce more bubbles than the leaves. That is because Elodea stems contain large intracellular air passageways. As oxygen is produced, the plant transports the oxygen away from the leaves towards the roots. Thus, a freshly cut stem will produce oxygen bubbles at an observable rate. The cells in the leaves are much more tightly packed together and provide greater resistance to the emerging oxygen gas than the stems. Thus, to maximize oxygen gas production in this experiment, cut the stem of the Elodea then place the plant upside-down in the test tube. For more information about why the bubbles emerge from the stems, not the leaves, see this article by David Hershey of the Mad Scientist Network.

An excellent resource with more information about the use of Elodea in this experiment can be found at the Clifton College Science School website. There you will find detailed information about Elodea, how oxygen is produced, experiments by Frost Blackman, practical advice and more.


  • Elodea plants
  • Scissors
  • Large beaker
  • Clear test tube, preferably with fine graduations (< 1 ml) in order to measure the volume of the gas produced
  • Water
  • Sunlight or a lamp (best to find a light source that produces as little heat as possible)
  • Optional: heavy black cloth


  1. Fill the large beaker almost to the top with water.
  2. Cut the stem of the Elodea plant at an angle (for greater surface area) so that it is just a little shorter than the test tube.
  3. Insert the plant, cut stem end in first, into the test tube.
  4. Fill the test tube to overflowing with water. Try to avoid introducing any bubbles to the test tube as you do this. Gently tap the test tube on a tabletop to dislodge any bubbles trapped between the leaves.
  5. Carefully cover the top of the test tube with your thumb, squeezing out some water as you do. Invert the test tube over the beaker and put the test tube with your thumb still covering the opening into the beaker.
  6. Release your thumb. And gently settle the test tube on the bottom of the container. Check to make sure there are no bubbles in the test tube.
  7. Place the beaker and test tube in sunlight or under a bright lamp. Observe what happens.
  8. At 5 minute intervals for a total of 15 minutes, record either the number of bubbles produced or the volume of bubbles produced.

Going Further

  1. Investigate the effect of light intensity. Compare bubble production between a plant in sunlight versus a plant in darkness, covered in a black cloth.
  2. Investigate the effect of temperature. Compare bubble production between a plant in the fridge versus a plant at room temperature.
  3. Investigate the effect of carbon dioxide levels. Compare bubble production between a plant in water that has been boiled and left to cool back to room temperature (little to no carbon dioxide) versus a plant in water that a person has blown bubbles through a straw for 3 minutes (lots of dissolved carbon dioxide). See the Colorful Respiration activity for more ideas along these lines.

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