The studies of Rubisco characteristics observed during plant evolution show that the variation of the Rubisco specificity factor only improved by two times from cyanobacteria to modern C3 plants. However we note important variations of the ratio between the maximum rates of oxygenation and carboxylation (V(O)/V(C)). Modelling in vivo ¹⁸O₂ data in plant gas exchange shows that the oxygenation reaction of Rubisco plays a regulating role when the photochemical energy exceeds the carboxylation capacity. A protective index 'oxygenation capacity' is postulated, related to the ratio V(O)/V(C) of Rubisco, and hence to the sink energy effect of photorespiration. Analysing the trends of Rubisco parameters along the evolutionary scale, we show: (1) the increase of both V(C) and V(O); (2) the enhancement of CO₂ affinity; and (3) the rise in oxygenation capacity at the expense of the CO₂ specificity. Hence, the factors of evolutionary pressure have not only directed the enzyme towards a more efficient utilisation of CO₂, but mainly to positively use the unavoidable great loss of energy and assimilated carbon in the process of photorespiration. These observations reinforce the hypothesis of plant-atmosphere co-evolution and of the complex role of Rubisco, which seems to be selected to develop both better CO₂ affinity and oxygenation capacity. The latter increases the capacity of sink of photorespiration, in particular, during water stress or under high irradiance, the two conditions experienced by plants in terrestrial environments. These observations help to explain some handicaps of C4 plants, and the supremacy of CAM and C3 perennial higher plants in arid environments.
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