CAM photosynthesis: the acid test

12 October 2021

New Phytologist

Klaus Winter, J. Andrew C. Smith

View Journal Article / Working Paper

There is currently considerable interest in the prospects for bioengineering crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) photosynthesis – or key elements associated with it, such as increased water-use efficiency – into C3 plants. Resolving how CAM photosynthesis evolved from the ancestral C3 pathway could provide valuable insights into the targets for such bioengineering efforts. It has been proposed that the ability to accumulate organic acids at night may be common among C3 plants, and that the transition to CAM might simply require enhancement of pre-existing fluxes, without the need for changes in circadian or diurnal regulation. We show, in a survey encompassing 40 families of vascular plants, that nocturnal acidification is a feature entirely restricted to CAM species. Although many C3 species can synthesize malate during the light period, we argue that the switch to night-time malic acid accumulation requires a fundamental metabolic reprogramming that couples glycolytic breakdown of storage carbohydrate to the process of net dark CO2 fixation. This central element of the CAM pathway, even when expressed at a low level, represents a biochemical capability not seen in C3 plants, and so is better regarded as a discrete evolutionary innovation than as part of a metabolic continuum between C3 and CAM.