Expansion of C4 ecosystems as an indicator of global ecological change in the late Miocene


THE most common and the most primitive pathway of the three different photosynthetic pathways used by plants is the C3 pathway, or Calvin cycle, which is characterized by an initial CO2 carboxylation to form phosphoglyceric acid, a 3-carbon acid. The carbon isotope composition (δ13C) of C3 plants varies from about −23 to −35%l–3 and averages about −26%. Virtually all trees, most shrubs, herbs and forbs, and cool-season grasses and sedges use the C3 pathway. In the C4 pathway (Hatch–Slack cycle), CO2 initially combines with phosphoenol pyruvate to form the 4-carbon acids malate or aspartic acid, which are translocated to bundle sheath cells where CO2 is released and used in Calvin cycle reactions1–4. The carbon isotope composition of C4 plants ranges from about −10 to −14%, averaging about −13% for modern plants1–3. Warm-season grasses and sedges are the most abundant C4 plants, although C4 photosynthesis is found in about twenty families5. The third photosynthetic pathway, CAM, combines features of both C3 and C4 pathways. CAM plants, which include many succulents, have intermediate carbon isotope compositions and are also adapted to conditions of water and CO2 stress. The modern global ecosystem has a significant component of C4 plants, primarily in tropical savannas, temperate grasslands and semi-desert scrublands. Studies of palaeovegetation from palaeosols and palaeodiet from fossil tooth enamel indicate a rapid expansion of C4 biomass in both the Old World and the New World starting 7 to 5 million years ago. We propose that the global expansion of C4 biomass may be related to lower atmospheric carbon dioxide levels because C4 photosynthesis is favoured over C3 photosynthesis when there are low concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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Cerling, T., Wang, Y. & Quade, J. Expansion of C4 ecosystems as an indicator of global ecological change in the late Miocene. Nature 361, 344–345 (1993). https://doi.org/10.1038/361344a0

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