A link between greenhouse gases and the evolution of C4 grasses

December 20, 2007

How a changing climate can affect ecosystems is an important and timely question, especially considering the recent global rise in greenhouse gases.

Now, in an article published online on December 20th in the journal Current Biology, evolutionary biologists provide strong evidence that changes in global carbon dioxide levels probably had an important influence on the emergence of a specific group of plants, termed C4 grasses, which includes major cereal crops, plants used for biofuels, and species that represent important components of grasslands across the world.

C4 plants are specially equipped to combat an energetically costly process, known as photorespiration, that can occur under conditions of high temperature, drought, high salinity, and—ith relevance to these latest findings—low carbon dioxide levels.

Although a combination of any of these factors might have provided the impetus behind the evolution of the various C4 lineages, it had been widely speculated that a drop in global carbon dioxide levels, occurring approximately 30 million years ago during the Oligocene period, may have been the major driving force. Establishing the link between the two, however, has proven difficult partly because there are no known fossils of C4 plants from this period. Enter Pascal-Antoine Christin and colleagues from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, who decided to take an alternative approach to date a large group of grasses.

By using a “molecular clock” technique, the authors were able to determine that the Chloridoideae subfamily of grasses emerged approximately 30 million years ago, right around the time global carbon dioxide levels were dropping. Furthermore, a model of the evolution of these grasses suggests that this correlation is not a trivial coincidence and instead reflects a causal relationship.

As the authors noted in their study, many of the C4 grasses evolved after the drop in global carbon dioxide levels 30 million years ago. How to explain this" The authors speculate that while an atmosphere low in carbon dioxide established the basic conditions necessary for C4 evolution, other ecological factors might be at work. In light of this, the authors hope to apply the same approaches used in the paper described here to investigate the role of other variables, such as drought, salinity, and flooding, in the evolution of C4 plants.

In addition to improving our understanding of how climate changes influenced ecosystems in the past, such studies may allow predictions of how human activities could affect the planet in the future. Indeed, with regard to global carbon dioxide levels, Christin and colleagues write, “Besides its influence on climatic variables, increased CO2 concentration could trigger important ecological changes in major terrestrial ecosystems by affecting the distribution of C4-dominated biomes and the affiliated flora and fauna.” This implies that a reversal of the conditions that favored C4 plants could potentially lead to their demise—a startling prospect if one considers the human race’s reliance on C4 crops like corn, sugarcane, sorghum, and millets.

Source: Cell Press

Explore further: Making polymers from a greenhouse gas

Related Stories

Making polymers from a greenhouse gas

July 28, 2015

A future where power plants feed their carbon dioxide directly into an adjacent production facility instead of spewing it up a chimney and into the atmosphere is definitely possible, because CO2 isn't just an undesirable ...

'Carbon sink' detected underneath world's deserts

July 28, 2015

The world's deserts may be storing some of the climate-changing carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, a new study suggests. Massive aquifers underneath deserts could hold more carbon than all the plants on land, according ...

Recommended for you

Magnetism at nanoscale

August 3, 2015

As the demand grows for ever smaller, smarter electronics, so does the demand for understanding materials' behavior at ever smaller scales. Physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory are building a unique ...

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Study calculates the speed of ice formation

August 3, 2015

Researchers at Princeton University have for the first time directly calculated the rate at which water crystallizes into ice in a realistic computer model of water molecules. The simulations, which were carried out on supercomputers, ...

Small tilt in magnets makes them viable memory chips

August 3, 2015

University of California, Berkeley, researchers have discovered a new way to switch the polarization of nanomagnets, paving the way for high-density storage to move from hard disks onto integrated circuits.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.