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Plant J. 2016 Jul;87(1):51-65. doi: 10.1111/tpj.13155. Epub 2016 Apr 18.

Engineering C4 photosynthesis into C3 chassis in the synthetic biology age.

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Institute for Plant Molecular and Developmental Biology, Cluster of Excellence on Plant Science (CEPLAS), Heinrich Heine University, 40225, Düsseldorf, Germany.
Institute for Plant Biochemistry, Cluster of Excellence on Plant Science (CEPLAS), Heinrich Heine University, 40225, Düsseldorf, Germany.


C4 photosynthetic plants outperform C3 plants in hot and arid climates. By concentrating carbon dioxide around Rubisco C4 plants drastically reduce photorespiration. The frequency with which plants evolved C4 photosynthesis independently challenges researchers to unravel the genetic mechanisms underlying this convergent evolutionary switch. The conversion of C3 crops, such as rice, towards C4 photosynthesis is a long-standing goal. Nevertheless, at the present time, in the age of synthetic biology, this still remains a monumental task, partially because the C4 carbon-concentrating biochemical cycle spans two cell types and thus requires specialized anatomy. Here we review the advances in understanding the molecular basis and the evolution of the C4 trait, advances in the last decades that were driven by systems biology methods. In this review we emphasise essential genetic engineering tools needed to translate our theoretical knowledge into engineering approaches. With our current molecular understanding of the biochemical C4 pathway, we propose a simplified rational engineering model exclusively built with known C4 metabolic components. Moreover, we discuss an alternative approach to the progressing international engineering attempts that would combine targeted mutagenesis and directed evolution.


C4 photosynthesis; Kranz anatomy; crop improvement; photosynthetic efficiency; rice; synthetic biology

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