Ördög Vince, Molnár Zoltán (2011)
Debreceni Egyetem, Nyugat-Magyarországi Egyetem, Pannon Egyetem
Solar radiant energy (ca. 3 x 1021 Joules/year) is converted via endergonic reactions in plants into carbohydrates (ca. 2 x 1011 tonnes of carbon/year). The capture of sunlight energy for transformation into various forms of chemical energy is one of the oldest biochemical reactions on Earth. One billion years ago, heterotrophic cells acquired the ability to convert sunlight into chemical energy through primary endosymbiosis with a cyanobacterium. The original endosymbiosis has given rise to an enormous variety of organelles. In general, the transition from endosymbiont to organelle involved both the loss of functions unnecessary in the protected milieu of the host cell and the gain of other metabolic pathways. The chloroplast is the place of both the light and carbon reactions of photosynthesis.
The products of the light reactions, ATP and NADPH, flow from thylakoid membranes to the surrounding fluid phase (stroma) and drive the enzyme-catalyzed reduction of atmospheric CO2 to carbohydrates and other cell components. Because the stroma-localized reactions depend on products of the photochemical processes and are also known to be regulated directly by light, they are more properly referred to as carbon reactions of photosynthesis. The incorporation of atmospheric CO2 into organic compounds appropriate for life is accomplished by the Calvin-Benson cycle. There are two major products of the photosynthetic fixation of CO2: starch, the reserve polysaccharide that accumulates transiently in chloroplasts; and sucrose, the disaccharide that is exported from leaves to developing and storage organs of the plant.
The Calvin-Benson cycle
The Calvin-Benson cycle is found in many prokaryotes and in all photosynthetic eukaryotes, from the most primitive algae to the most advanced angiosperms. It is also aptly named the reductive pentose phosphate cycle.
The Calvin-Benson cycle has three stages
The Calvin-Benson cycle was elucidated by M. Calvin, A. Benson and their colleagues in the 1950s. It proceeds in three stages that are highly coordinated in the chloroplast (Figure 2.11):
Carboxylation of the CO2 acceptor molecule. The first committed enzymatic step to generate two molecules of a 3-carbon intermediate (3-phosphoglycerate).
Reduction of 3-phosphoglycerate.
Regeneration of the CO2 acceptor ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate.
Figure 2.11 The Calvin-Benson cycle proceeds in three stages: carboxylation, reduction, and regeneration (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2010)
In the first step three molecules of CO2 and three molecules of H2O react with three molecules of ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate to yield six molecules of 3-phosphoglycerate. This reaction is catalyzed by the chloroplast enzyme ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase, referred to as rubisco. The reduction stage of the Calvin-Benson cycle reduces the carbon of the 3-phosphoglycerate coming from the carboxylation stage. To prevent depletion of Calvin-Benson cycle intermediates, the continuous uptake of atmospheric CO2 requires constant regeneration of the CO2 acceptor ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate.
Triose phosphates are formed in the carboxylation and reduction phases of the Calvin-Benson cycle at the expense of energy (ATP) and reducing equivalents (NADPH) generated in the thylakoid membranes of chloroplasts:
3CO2 + 3 ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate + 3H2O + 6NADPH + 6H+ +6ATP ---> 6 triose phosphates + 6NADP+ + 6ADP +6Pi
From these six triose phosphates, five are used in the regeneration phase that restores ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate, the CO2 acceptor, while the sixth triose phosphate represents net synthesis from CO2 and is used as a building block for other metabolic processes.
5 triose phosphates + 3ATP ---> 3 ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate + 3ADP
In summary, the fixation of three CO2 into one triose phosphate utilizes 9ATP and 6NADPH; that is, the ratio of ATP:NADPH required for the fixation of one CO2 in the Calvin-Benson cycle is 3:2.
When leaves are kept in darkness for long periods (e.g., at night), the stromal concentration of most biochemical intermediates of the Calvin-Benson cycle is low. Therefore, when leaves are transferred to the light, almost all stromal triose phosphates are committed to the production of the intermediates necessary to regenerate ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate. The fixation of CO2 starts after a lag, called the induction period, and the rate of photosynthesis increases with time in the first few minutes after the onset of illumination.
Regulation of the Calvin-Benson cycle
The efficient use of energy in the Calvin-Benson cycle requires the existence of specific regulatory mechanisms ensuring not only that all intermediates in the cycle are present at adequate concentrations in the light, but also that the cycle is turned off when not needed in the dark. Although rubisco plays a critical role in the carbon cycle of the biosphere, its catalytic rate is extremely slow (1-12 CO2 fixations per second). This paradoxical feature was clarified when George Lorimer and colleagues found that rubisco must be activated before acting as a catalyst. Further studies revealed that the CO2 molecule plays a dual role in the activity of rubisco: CO2 participates in the transformation of the enzyme from an inactive to an active form (modulation) and is the substrate for the carboxylase reaction (catalysis).
In addition to rubisco, light controls the activity of four other enzymes of the Calvin-Benson cycle via the ferredoxin-thioredoxin system, which consists of ferredoxin, ferredoxin-thioredoxin reductase, and thioredoxin. The deactivation of the target enzymes in the dark appears to take place by reversal of the reduction (activation) pathway. Oxygen or reactive oxygen species transform reduced thioredoxin (-SH HS-) to the oxidized state (-S-S-), which in turn converts the reduced target enzyme to the oxidized state, leading to loss of catalytic activity.
Upon illumination, the flow of protons from the stroma into the thylakoid lumen is coupled to the release of Mg2+ from the intrathylakoid space to the stroma. These ion fluxes decrease the stromal concentration of H+ (the pH increases from 7 to 8) and increase that of Mg2+ by 2-5mM. Several Calvin-Benson cycle enzymes that require Mg2+ for catalysis are more active at pH 8 than at pH 7, including rubisco, fructose-1,6-bisphosphatase, sedoheptulose-1,7-bisphosphatase, and phosphoribulokinase. Hence, the light-mediated increase of Mg2+ and H+ enhances the activity of key enzymes of the Calvin-Benson cycle.
The C2 oxydative photosynthetic carbon cycle
Rubisco has the capacity to catalyze both the carboxylation and oxygenation of ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate. Carboxylation yields two molecules of 3-phosphoglycerate, while oxygenation produces one molecule each of 3-phosphoglycerate and 2-phosphoglycolate. The oxygenation of ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate catalyzed by rubisco initiates a coordinated network of enzymatic reactions that are compartmentalized in chloroplasts, leaf peroxisomes, and mitochondria (Figure 2.12). This process, known as photorespiration, causes the partial loss of CO2 fixed by the Calvin-Benson cycle. That is why several crops show a dramatic increase in yield when grown in greenhouse with elevated levels of CO2.
Carboxylation and oxygenation are competing reactions
The ability to catalyze the oxygenation of ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate is a property of all rubiscos, regardless of taxonomic origin. The 2-phosphoglycolate formed in the chloroplast by oxygenation of ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate is rapidly hydrolyzed to glycolate by a specific chloroplast phosphatase. The subsequent metabolism of glycolate involves the cooperation of two other organelles: peroxisomes and mitochondria. Glycolate exits the chloroplast via a specific transporter protein and diffuses to the peroxisome. The glycolate oxidase catalyzes the oxidation of glycolate by producing H2O2 and glyoxylate. Catalase breaks down the H2O2, releasing O2, while glyoxylate undergoes transamination with glutamate, yielding the amino acid glycine. Glycine leaves the peroxisome and enters the mitochondrion, where two molecules of glycine are converted to serine and CO2. The newly formed serine diffuses from the mitochondrion back to the peroxisome, where it is converted to glycerate. Finally, glycerate reenters the chloroplast, where it is phosphorilated to yield 3-phosphoglycerate.
Figure 2.12 Operation of the C2 oxidative photosynthetic cycle involves the cooperative interaction among three organelles (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2010)
In vivo, the balance between the Calvin-Benson and the C2 oxidative photosynthetic cycles is determined mainly by three factors: one is inherent to the plant (the kinetic properties of rubisco), and two are linked to the environment (temperature and the concentration of substrates, CO2 and O2). An increase in the external temperature:
modifies the kinetic constants of rubisco, increasing the rate of oxygenation more than that of carboxylation, and
lowers the concentration of CO2 more than that of O2 in a solution in equilibrium with air.
Hence, the increase in photorespiration (oxygenation) relative to photosynthesis (carboxylation) significantly limits the efficiency of photosynthetic carbon assimilation under warmer temperatures. Overall, a progressive increase in temperature tilts the balance away from the Calvin-Benson cycle and toward the C2 oxidative photosynthetic cycle.
Inorganic carbon-concentrating mechanisms
The pronounced reduction in CO2 and rise in O2 levels that commenced about 350 million years ago triggered a series of adaptations to handle an environment that promoted photorespiration in photosynthetic organisms. These adaptations include various strategies for active uptake of CO2 and HCO3- from the surrounding environment and subsequent accumulation of inorganic carbon near rubisco.
The C4 cycle
To minimize the oxygenase activity of rubisco and the concurrent loss of carbon through the photorespiratory cycle, C4 photosynthesis appears to have evolved as one of the major carbon-concentrating mechanisms used by land plants to compensate for limitations associated with the low level of atmospheric CO2. M.D. Hatch and C.R. Slack elucidated what is now named the C4 photosynthetic carbon cycle (also known as the Hatch-Slack cycle or the C4 cycle). They established that malate and aspartate are the first stable, detectable intermediates of photosynthesis in leaves of sugarcane. This novel metabolic pathway takes place in two morphologically distinct cell types, the mesophyll and bundle sheet cells. In the C4 cycle, the enzyme phosphoenolpyruvate carboxylase (PEPCase), rather than rubisco, catalyzes the primary carboxylation in a tissue that is close to the external atmosphere. The resulting 4-carbon acid flows across the diffusion barrier to the vascular region, where it is decarboxylated, releasing CO2 that is refixed by rubisco via the Calvin-Benson cycle.
Two different types of cells participate in the C4 cycle
The key features of the C4 cycle were initially found in leaves of plants whose vascular tissues are surrounded by two distinctive photosynthetic cell types, an internal ring of bundle sheath cells, which is wrapped with an outer ring of mesophyll cells. The chloroplasts in bundle sheath cells are concentrically arranged and exhibit large starch granules and unstacked thylakoid membranes. On the other hand, mesophyll cells contain randomly arranged chloroplasts with stacked thylakoids and little or no starch. In this anatomical context, the transport of CO2 from the external atmosphere to the bundle sheath cells proceeds through five successive stages (Figure 2.13):
fixation of the HCO3- by PEPCase in the mesophyll cells,
transport of the 4-carbon acids (malate, aspartate) to bundle sheath cells,
decarboxylation of the 4-carbon acids and generation of CO2, which is then reduced to carbohydrate via the Calvin-Benson cycle,
transport of the 3-carbon backbone (pyruvate or alanine) back to the mesophyll cells,
regeneration of the HCO3- acceptor.
Figure 2.13 The C4 photosynthetic carbon cycle (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2010)
The compartmentalization of enzymes ensures that inorganic carbon from the surrounding atmosphere can be taken up initially by mesophyll cells, fixed subsequently by the Calvin-Benson cycle of bundle sheath cells, and finally exported to the phloem.
The C4 cycle is known to occur in 18 families of both monocots and dicots. In all cases the operation of the C4 cycle requires the cooperative effort of the two distinct chloroplast-containing cell types. The transport process facilitated by plasmodesmata connecting the two cell types generates a much higher concentration of CO2 in bundle sheath cells (the vascular region) than in mesophyll cells. The elevated concentration of CO2 at the carboxylation site of rubisco results in the suppression of ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate oxygenation and hence of photorespiration.
Chloroplasts from mesophyll cells of C3 and C4 plants exhibit qualitatively similar but quantitatively different proteomes in their envelope membranes. In particular, translocators that participate in the transport of triose phosphates and phosphoenolpyruvate are more abundant in the envelopes of C4 plants than in those of C3 plants. This higher abundance ensures that fluxes of metabolic intermediates across the chloroplast envelope in C4 plants are higher than in C3 plants.
The C4 cycle reduces photorespiration and water loss
Elevated temperature decrease both the carboxylative capacity of rubisco and the solubility of CO2, thus limiting the rate of photosynthetic CO2 assimilation in C3 plants. In C4 plants, two features overcome the deleterious effects of high temperature:
first, the affinity of PEPCase for its substrate, HCO3-, is sufficiently high to saturate the enzyme at the reduced CO2 levels present in warm climates. Further, oxygenase activity is largely suppressed because HCO3- does not compete with O2 in the initial carboxylation. This high activity of PEPCase enables C4 plants to reduce their tomatal aperture at high temperatures and thereby conserve water while fixing CO2 at rates equal to or greater that those of C3 plants.
second, the high concentration of CO2 in bundle sheath cells minimizes the operation of the C2 oxidative photosynthetic cycle.
Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM)
Many plants that inhabit arid environments with seasonal water availability, including commercially important plants, such as pinapple, agave, cacti, and orchids, exhibit another mechanism for concentrating CO2 at the site of rubisco. This important variant of photosynthetic carbon fixation was historically named crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) to recognize its initial observation in Bryophyllum calycinum, a succulent member of the Crassulaceae. An important attribute of CAM plants is their capacity to attain high biomass in habitats where precipitation is inadequate, or where evaporation is so great that rainfall is insufficient for crop growth. CAM is generally associated with anatomical features that minimize water loss, such as thick cuticles, low surface-to-volume ratios, large vacuoles, and stomata with small apertures. In addition, tight packing of the mesophyll cells enhances CAM performance by restricting CO2 loss during the day.
In CAM plants, the initial capture of atmospheric CO2 into C4 acids and the final incorporation of CO2 into carbon skeletons are spatially close but temporally out of phase – by almost 12 hours over the 24-hour light-dark cycle (Figure 2.14). At night, cytosolic PEPCase fixes atmospheric (and respiratory) CO2 into oxaloacetate using phosphoenolpyruvate formed via the glycolytic breakdown of stored carbohydrates. A cytosolic NAD-malate dehydrogenase converts the oxaloacetate to malate, which is stored in the acid vacuole for the remainder of the night. During the day, the stored malate is transported to the chloroplast and decarboxylated. The released CO2 is made available to the chloroplast for processing via the Calvin-Benson cycle, while the complementary 3-carbon acids are converted to triose phosphates and subsequently to starch or sucrose via gluconeogenesis as in C4 plants.
Figure 2.14 Inorganic carbon-concentrating mechanism: crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2010)
Changes in the rate of carbon uptake and in enzyme regulation throughout the day create a 24-hour CAM cycle that is divided into four distinct phases: phase I (night), phase II (early morning), phase III (daytime), and phase IV (late afternoon). During the nocturnal phase I, when stomata are open and leaves are respiring, CO2 is captured and stored as malate in the vacuole. CO2 uptake by PEPCase dominates phase I. In the diurnal phase III, when stomata are closed and leaves are photosynthesizing, the stored malate is decarboxylated. This results in high concentrations of CO2 around the active site of rubisco, thereby alleviating the adverse effects of photorespiration. The transient phases II and IV shift the metabolism in preparation for phases III and I, respectively. In phase II, rubisco activity increases, but it decreases in phase IV. In contrast the activity of PEPCase increases in phase IV, but declines in phase II.
CAM is a versatile mechanism sensitive to environmental stimuli
CAM plants that grow in deserts, such as cacti, open their stomata during the cool nights and close them during the hot, dry days. Closing the stomata during the day minimizes the loss of water but, because H2O and CO2 share the same diffusion pathway, CO2 must then be taken up by the open stomata at night. When the stomata are closed, neither the CO2 released by decarboxylating enzymes nor the CO2 released in mitochondrial respiration escape from the leaf. As a consequence, the internally generated CO2 is fixed and converted to carbohydrates by the Calvin-Benson cycle. Thus, stomatal closure not only helps conserve water, but also assists in the building of the elevated internal concentration of CO2, that enhances the photosynthetic carboxylation of ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate.
The water-conserving closure of stomata in arid lands may not be the unique basis of CAM evolution, because, paradoxically, CAM species are also found among aquatic plants. Perhaps this mechanism also enhances the acquisition of inorganic carbon (as HCO3-) in aquatic habitats, where high resistance to gas diffusion restricts the availability of CO2.
Accumulation and partitioning of photosynthates – starch and sucrose
Eukaryotic organisms have to mobilize sugars from the site of synthesis or absorption (source) to cells that use them for growth or energy (sinks). The photosynthetic assimilation of CO2 by most leaves yields sucrose and starch as end products, but the pathways that produce them are physically separated: sucrose is synthesized in the cytosol and starch in chloroplasts (Figure 2.15). During the day, sucrose flows continuously from the leaf cytosol to heterotrophic sink tissues, while starch accumulates as dense granules in chloroplasts. Sucrose is the principal carbohydrate exported from source leaves to sink tissues in most plants. The retention of some photosynthate as starch in the chloroplast during the day ensures that there will be carbohydrate available for conversion to sucrose for export at night. Plants vary widely in the extent to which they accumulate starch and sucrose in leaves.
Figure 2.15 Accumulation and partitioning of photosynthates: starch and sucrose (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2010)
Environmental factors also influence the amount of fixed carbon allocated to sucrose and starch in the leaf; plants grown in short days divert relatively more of their photosynthates to starch than their counterparts grown in long days, thus ensuring an adequate supply of sugars during the longer nights. Sugars produced by photosynthesis are transported from the source (leaf cells) to nonphotosynthetic sinks (stems, roots, tubers, grains) through the vascular tissues (phloem).
The onset of darkness not only stops the assimilation of CO2, but also starts the degradation of chloroplast starch. The content of starch in the chloroplast falls dramatically through the night, as it is converted to sucrose and exported. Low levels of sugars in sink tissues stimulate the rate of photosynthesis and the mobilization of carbohydrates from reserve organs. On the other hand, an abundance of sugars in leaves promotes plant growth and carbohydrate storage in reserve organs.