Some like it hot: the physiological ecology of C4 plant evolution

Rowan F. Sage, Russell K. Monson, James R. Ehleringer, Shunsuke Adachi, Robert W. Pearcy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


The evolution of C4 photosynthesis requires an intermediate phase where photorespiratory glycine produced in the mesophyll cells must flow to the vascular sheath cells for metabolism by glycine decarboxylase. This glycine flux concentrates photorespired CO2 within the sheath cells, allowing it to be efficiently refixed by sheath Rubisco. A modest C4 biochemical cycle is then upregulated, possibly to support the refixation of photorespired ammonia in sheath cells, with subsequent increases in C4 metabolism providing incremental benefits until an optimized C4 pathway is established. ‘Why’ C4 photosynthesis evolved is largely explained by ancestral C3 species exploiting photorespiratory CO2 to improve carbon gain and thus enhance fitness. While photorespiration depresses C3 performance, it produces a resource (photorespired CO2) that can be exploited to build an evolutionary bridge to C4 photosynthesis. ‘Where’ C4 evolved is indicated by the habitat of species branching near C3-to-C4 transitions on phylogenetic trees. Consistent with the photorespiratory bridge hypothesis, transitional species show that the large majority of > 60 C4 lineages arose in hot, dry, and/or saline regions where photorespiratory potential is high. ‘When’ C4 evolved has been clarified by molecular clock analyses using phylogenetic data, coupled with isotopic signatures from fossils. Nearly all C4 lineages arose after 25 Ma when atmospheric CO2 levels had fallen to near current values. This reduction in CO2, coupled with persistent high temperature at low-to-mid-latitudes, met a precondition where photorespiration was elevated, thus facilitating the evolutionary selection pressure that led to C4 photosynthesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)941-966
Number of pages26
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2018


  • C photosynthesis
  • C–C intermediate
  • Flaveria
  • Photorespiration
  • Photosynthetic evolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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