Frugal Euphorbia saves water

Sometimes saving water is more important than fixing CO2.

Euphorbia milii Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) is a carbon fixation pathway that evolved in some plants as an adaptation to arid conditions. In a plant using full CAM, the stomata in the leaves remain shut during the day to reduce evapotranspiration, but open at night to collect carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 is stored as the four-carbon acid malate, and then used during photosynthesis during the day. Clever stuff.

C4 carbon fixation is one of three biochemical mechanisms, along with C3 and CAM photosynthesis, used in carbon fixation. It is named for the 4-carbon molecule present in the first product of carbon fixation in the small subset of plants known as C4 plants, in contrast to the 3-carbon molecule products in C3 plants. Plants use CAM to different degrees. Some are “obligate CAM plants”, i.e. they use only CAM in photosynthesis, although they vary in the amount of CO2 they are able to store as organic acids. Other plants show “inducible CAM”, in which they are able to switch between using either the C3 or C4 mechanism and CAM depending on environmental conditions. Another group of plants employ “CAM-cycling”, in which their stomata do not open at night; the plants instead recycle CO2 produced by respiration as well as storing some CO2 during the day.

In the genus Euphorbia, a variety of carbon fixation pathwats are used. A new paper in AoB PLANTS examines Euphorbia milii and demonstrates that this species can be considered as CAM-cycling species, primarily interested in water conservation rather than carbon acquisition. The possible occurrence of C2 photosynthesis merits research.


Crassulacean acid metabolism-cycling in Euphorbia milii. AoB PLANTS (2013) 5: plt014 doi: 10.1093/aobpla/plt014
Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) occurs in many Euphorbiaceae, particularly Euphorbia, a genus with C3 and C4 species as well. With the aim of contributing to our knowledge of the evolution of CAM in this genus, this study examined the possible occurrence of CAM in Euphorbia milii, a species with leaf succulence and drought tolerance suggestive of this carbon fixation pathway. Leaf anatomy consisted of a palisade parenchyma, a spongy parenchyma and a bundle sheath with chloroplasts, which indicates the possible functioning of C2 photosynthesis. No evidence of nocturnal CO2 fixation was found in plants of E. milii either watered or under drought; watered plants had a low nocturnal respiration rate (R). After 12 days without watering, the photosynthetic rate (PN) decreased 85 % and nocturnal R was nearly zero. Nocturnal H+ accumulation (ΔH+) in watered plants was 18 ± 2 (corresponding to malate) and 18 ± 4 (citrate) μmol H+ (g fresh mass)−1. Respiratory CO2 recycling through acid synthesis contributed to a night-time water saving of 2 and 86 % in watered plants and plants under drought, respectively. Carbon isotopic composition (δ13C) was −25.2 ± 0.7 ‰ in leaves and −24.7 ± 0.1 ‰ in stems. Evidence was found for the operation of weak CAM in E. milii, with statistically significant ΔH+, no nocturnal CO2 uptake and values of δ13C intermediate between C3 and constitutive CAM plants; ΔH+ was apparently attributable to both malate and citrate. The results suggest that daily malate accumulation results from recycling of part of the nocturnal respiratory CO2, which helps explain the occurrence of an intermediate value of leaf δ13C. Euphorbia milii can be considered as a CAM-cycling species. The significance of the operation of CAM-cycling in E. milii lies in water conservation, rather than carbon acquisition. The possible occurrence of C2 photosynthesis merits research.


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