The importance of the photosynthetic Gibbs effect in the elucidation of the Calvin-Benson-Bassham cycle

Biochem Soc Trans. 2018 Feb 19;46(1):131-140. doi: 10.1042/BST20170245. Epub 2018 Jan 5.


The photosynthetic carbon reduction cycle, or Calvin-Benson-Bassham (CBB) cycle, is now contained in every standard biochemistry textbook. Although the cycle was already proposed in 1954, it is still the subject of intense research, and even the structure of the cycle, i.e. the exact series of reactions, is still under debate. The controversy about the cycle's structure was fuelled by the findings of Gibbs and Kandler in 1956 and 1957, when they observed that radioactive 14CO2 was dynamically incorporated in hexoses in a very atypical and asymmetrical way, a phenomenon later termed the 'photosynthetic Gibbs effect'. Now, it is widely accepted that the photosynthetic Gibbs effect is not in contradiction to the reaction scheme proposed by CBB, but the arguments given have been largely qualitative and hand-waving. To fully appreciate the controversy and to understand the difficulties in interpreting the Gibbs effect, it is illustrative to illuminate the history of the discovery of the CBB cycle. We here give an account of central scientific advances and discoveries, which were essential prerequisites for the elucidation of the cycle. Placing the historic discoveries in the context of the modern textbook pathway scheme illustrates the complexity of the cycle and demonstrates why especially dynamic labelling experiments are far from easy to interpret. We conclude by arguing that it requires sound theoretical approaches to resolve conflicting interpretations and to provide consistent quantitative explanations.

Keywords: Calvin cycle; Gibbs effect; carbon fixation; mathematical model.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Carbon Cycle*
  • Carbon Dioxide / chemistry
  • Photosynthesis*


  • Carbon Dioxide