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Photosynth Res. 2006 Feb;87(2):177-94. Epub 2006 Jan 17.

Land plants equilibrate O2 and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

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Department of Plant Science, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.


The role of land plants in establishing our present day atmosphere is analysed. Before the evolution of land plants, photosynthesis by marine and fresh water organisms was not intensive enough to deplete CO(2) from the atmosphere, the concentration of which was more than the order of magnitude higher than present. With the appearance of land plants, the exudation of organic acids by roots, following respiratory and photorespiratory metabolism, led to phosphate weathering from rocks thus increasing aquatic productivity. Weathering also replaced silicates by carbonates, thus decreasing the atmospheric CO(2) concentration. As a result of both intensive photosynthesis and weathering, CO(2 )was depleted from the atmosphere down to low values approaching the compensation point of land plants. During the same time period, the atmospheric O(2) concentration increased to maximum levels about 300 million years ago (Permo-Carboniferous boundary), establishing an O(2)/CO(2) ratio above 1000. At this point, land plant productivity and weathering strongly decreased, exerting negative feedback on aquatic productivity. Increased CO(2) concentrations were triggered by asteroid impacts and volcanic activity and in the Mesozoic era could be related to the gymnosperm flora with lower metabolic and weathering rates. A high O(2)/CO(2) ratio is metabolically linked to the formation of citrate and oxalate, the main factors causing weathering, and to the production of reactive oxygen species, which triggered mutations and stimulated the evolution of land plants. The development of angiosperms resulted in a decrease in CO(2) concentration during the Cenozoic era, which finally led to the glacial-interglacial oscillations in the Pleistocene epoch. Photorespiration, the rate of which is directly related to the O(2)/CO(2) ratio, due to the dual function of Rubisco, may be an important mechanism in maintaining the limits of O(2) and CO(2) concentrations by restricting land plant productivity and weathering.

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