The Road to C4 Photosynthesis: Evolution of a Complex Trait via Intermediary States

Plant Cell Physiol. 2016 May;57(5):881-9. doi: 10.1093/pcp/pcw009. Epub 2016 Feb 17.


C4 photosynthesis enables high photosynthetic energy conversion efficiency as well as high nitrogen and water use efficiencies. Given the multitude of biochemical, structural and molecular changes in comparison with C3 photosynthesis, it appears unlikely that such a complex trait would evolve in a single step. C4 photosynthesis is therefore believed to have evolved from the ancestral C3 state via intermediary stages. Consequently, the identification and detailed characterization of plant species representing transitory states between C3 and C4 is important for the reconstruction of the sequence of evolutionary events, especially since C4 evolution occurred in very different phylogenetic backgrounds. There is also significant interest in engineering of C4 or at least C4-like elements into C3 crop plants. A detailed and mechanistic understanding of C3-C4 intermediates is likely to provide guidance for the experimental design of such approaches. Here we provide an overview on the most relevant results obtained on C3-C4 intermediates to date. Recent knowledge gains in this field will be described in more detail. We thereby concentrate especially on biochemical and physiological work. Finally, we will provide a perspective and outlook on the continued importance of research on C3-C4 intermediates.

Keywords: C3–C4 intermediate; C4 photosynthesis; Evolution; Photorespiration.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Carbon Cycle
  • Cell Respiration
  • Light
  • Nitrogen / metabolism
  • Organ Specificity
  • Phenotype
  • Photosynthesis*
  • Plants / genetics*
  • Plants / metabolism
  • Plants / radiation effects
  • Species Specificity
  • Water / metabolism


  • Water
  • Nitrogen