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C-4 Pathway

Some plants have developed a preliminary step to the Calvin Cycle (which is also referred to as a C-3 pathway), the preliminary step is known as C-4. While most C-fixation begins with RuBP, C-4 begins with a new molecule, phosphoenolpyruvate (PEP), a 3-C chemical that is converted into oxaloacetic acid (OAA, a 4-C chemical) when carbon dioxide is combined with PEP. The OAA is converted to Malic Acid and then transported from the mesophyll cell into the bundle-sheath cell, where OAA is broken down into PEP plus carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide then enters the Calvin Cycle, with PEP returning to the mesophyll cell. The resulting sugars are now adjacent to the leaf veins and can readily be transported throughout the plant.

The capture of carbon dioxide by PEP is mediated by the enzyme PEP carboxylase, which has a stronger affinity for carbon dioxide than does RuBP carboxylase When carbon dioxide levels decline below the threshold for RuBP carboxylase, RuBP is catalyzed with oxygen instead of carbon dioxide. The product of that reaction forms glycolic acid, a chemical that can be broken down by photorespiration, producing neither NADH nor ATP, in effect dismantling the Calvin Cycle. C-4 plants, which often grow close together, have had to adjust to decreased levels of carbon dioxide by artificially raising the carbon dioxide concentration in certain cells to prevent photorespiration. C-4 plants evolved in the tropics and are adapted to higher temperatures than are the C-3 plants found at higher latitudes. Common C-4 plants include crabgrass, corn, and sugar cane. Note that OAA and Malic Acid also have functions in other processes, thus the chemicals would have been present in all plants, leading scientists to hypothesize that C-4 mechanisms evolved several times independently in response to a similar environmental condition, a type of evolution known as convergent evolution.

The Carbon Cycle *The Importance of Equilibrium*

Plants are often seen or viewed as "carbon sinks," removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oceans by fixing it into organic chemicals. Plants also produce some carbon dioxide by their respiration, but this is quickly used by photosynthesis. Plants also convert energy from light into chemical energy. Animals are carbon dioxide producers that get their energy from carbohydrates and other chemicals produced by plants by the process of photosynthesis.

The balance between the plant carbon dioxide removal and animal carbon dioxide generation is equalized also by the formation of carbonates in the oceans. This removes excess carbon dioxide from the air and water (both of which are in equilibrium with regard to carbon dioxide). Fossil fuels, such as petroleum and coal, as well as more recent fuels such as peat and wood generate carbon dioxide when burned. Fossil fuels are formed ultimately by organic processes, and represent also a tremendous carbon sink. Human activity has greatly increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in air. This increase has led to global warming, an increase in temperatures around the world, the Greenhouse Effect. The increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the air has also led to acid rain, where water falls through polluted air and chemically combines with carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, and sulfur oxides, producing rainfall with pH as low as 4. This results in fish kills and changes in soil pH which can alter the natural vegetation and uses of the land. The Global Warming problem can lead to melting of the ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica, raising sea-level as much as 120 meters. Changes in sea-level and temperature would affect climate changes, altering belts of grain production and rainfall patterns.


By Brad Mace, Scott Ernst, Mark Traynham, and Jaime Erice.
Last Updated September 25, 1997.