The C(4) plant lineages of planet Earth

J Exp Bot. 2011 May;62(9):3155-69. doi: 10.1093/jxb/err048. Epub 2011 Mar 16.


Using isotopic screens, phylogenetic assessments, and 45 years of physiological data, it is now possible to identify most of the evolutionary lineages expressing the C(4) photosynthetic pathway. Here, 62 recognizable lineages of C(4) photosynthesis are listed. Thirty-six lineages (60%) occur in the eudicots. Monocots account for 26 lineages, with a minimum of 18 lineages being present in the grass family and six in the sedge family. Species exhibiting the C(3)-C(4) intermediate type of photosynthesis correspond to 21 lineages. Of these, 9 are not immediately associated with any C(4) lineage, indicating that they did not share common C(3)-C(4) ancestors with C(4) species and are instead an independent line. The geographic centre of origin for 47 of the lineages could be estimated. These centres tend to cluster in areas corresponding to what are now arid to semi-arid regions of southwestern North America, south-central South America, central Asia, northeastern and southern Africa, and inland Australia. With 62 independent lineages, C(4) photosynthesis has to be considered one of the most convergent of the complex evolutionary phenomena on planet Earth, and is thus an outstanding system to study the mechanisms of evolutionary adaptation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Africa, Eastern
  • Africa, Southern
  • Asia, Central
  • Australia
  • Biological Evolution
  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism
  • Cell Respiration
  • Isotopes / analysis
  • Magnoliopsida / classification*
  • Magnoliopsida / genetics*
  • Magnoliopsida / physiology
  • North America
  • Photosynthesis / genetics*
  • Phylogeny
  • South America


  • Isotopes
  • Carbon Dioxide