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Scientists discover C4 photosynthesis boosts growth by altering size and structure of plant leaves and roots

April 18, 2016

  • Discovery could help researchers harness C4 photosynthesis process to boost rice yields and improve food security
  • C4 plants grow between 20-100 per cent faster than C3 plants
  • C4 plants grow 'cheaper' leaves which allows them to produce 50 per cent more roots than C3 species
Plants using C4 photosynthesis grow 20-100 per cent quicker than more common C3 plants by altering the shape, size and structure of their leaves and roots, according to a new study.

The ground breaking research, conducted by scientists at the University of Sheffield, revealed why plants using C4 photosynthesis - a complex set of structural and chemical adaptations that have evolved more than 60 times to boost carbon uptake compared to the ancestral C3 plants - grow so rapidly.

The study, which is the biggest of its kind, discovered C4 plants not only grow up to 100 per cent faster than common C3 plants, but they also make 'cheaper' quality leaves allowing them to produce 50 per cent more roots.

As roots take up water and nutrients from the soil, C4 plants have important advantages in dry and infertile soils across the world's savannas and grasslands - a quality which could be engineered into rice to help the crop use soil resources more sustainably as well as producing larger yields.

Professor Colin Osborne, lead author of the study and Associate Director of the University's Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, said: "Photosynthesis powers most life on Earth because it converts solar energy into sugars which are used by plants to grow.

"C4 photosynthesis has evolved in tropical plants to boost sugar production over the more ancient C3 type of photosynthesis. Grasses using C4 photosynthesis dominate the world's savannas and it is also used by maize and sugarcane to achieve high yields.

"We have known for a long time that C4 photosynthesis explains the rapid growth of record breaking plants, but most plants don't grow that fast - in fact growth can vary ten-times among plant species. By comparing almost 400 grass species our research has led to unexpected discoveries that will now change the way we think about C4 photosynthesis."

Only three per cent of existing plant species have C4 lineages but they account for 25 per cent of carbon fixation by vegetation on Earth. C4 grasses include some of the world's most important food and energy crops and C4 grassy savannas provide critical ecosystem services for more than a billion people.

Professor Osborne added: "Understanding how the C4 photosynthetic pathway changes plant growth is crucially important for plant evolution, crop production and ecosystem ecology.

"Unexpectedly, during our study we found that faster seedling growth in C4 plants comes from the production of 'cheaper' leaves, rather than fast growth per leaf as people have previously thought.

"C4 leaves have less dense tissues, allowing more leaves to be produced for the same carbon cost which means C4 plants invest more in roots than C3 species."
-end-
The research, published today (Monday 18 April 2016 ) in Nature Plants, comes just a week after scientists from across the world gathered in Canberra, Australia for a unique conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of C4 photosynthesis by Dr Hal Hatch and Dr Roger Slack.

Additional information


The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures


The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures is an ambitious and innovative collaboration between the University of Sheffield and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. Our sustainability research creates knowledge and connects it to policy debates on how to build a fairer world and save natural resources for future generations.

The University of Sheffield

With almost 27,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world's leading universities. A member of the UK's prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in. Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2016 and was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education in 2014. In the last decade it has won four Queen's Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom's intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields. Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

For further information, please visit http://www.sheffield.ac.uk

For further information please contact: Amy Pullan, Media Relations Officer, University of Sheffield, 0114 222 9859, a.l.pullan@sheffield.ac.uk

To read other news releases about the University of Sheffield, visit http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news

University of Sheffield

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