Back to top - Speculations on the origins of CAM


Figure 2.38 A clump of Isoetes andicola symbolizes the extraordinary functional biodiversity of CAM. (Photograph courtesy J. E. Keeley)

From the above it will be clear that tracking the origins of CAM autotrophy in plants will involve no mean feat (“a laudable triumph of great difficulty”). From a holistic perspective, CAM tests the extremities of most aspects of the physiology and ecology of terrestrial plants, as testified in a comprehensive recent collection of reviews and research papers over-viewed by Sage (2014).  With all the emphasis on water-use efficiency in arid environments as a dominant selective pressure for CAM it is often overlooked (and perhaps ironic) that this pathway today is found in aquatic plants, including the fern-ally Isoetes. The origins of Isoetes, though not the present-day taxa themselves, are Triassic, some 100 x106 years before the commonly imagined emergence of CAM in terrestrial plants (Keeley 2014).

The selective pressure for nocturnal storage of CO2 in malic acid by CAM in terrestrial plants may well be closure of stomata to conserve water loss in a dry atmosphere in daylight. In aquatic plants the selective pressure may be the slow diffusion of CO2 in water and its depletion from solution by photosynthesis. In between we have Isoetes andicola from the high Andes of Peru, in which non-functional stoma-like epidermal structures seem literally stitched up (Figure 2.38).  

Clumps of I. andicola are embedded in mounds of peat, with the tips of leaf-like structures forming small rosettes (~5 cm diam.) on the surface. These contain chloroplast-containing cells surrounding large air spaces that evidently maintain gas-phase connections through their large “drinking straw-like” roots to high [CO2] in the peat (~ 4%). The green tips can’t fix CO2 from the air, but when 14CO2 is supplied to the peat it is fixed within leaves into malic acid in the dark and metabolized to photosynthetic products in the light. Understanding how the habit of I. andicola manages to “CAMpeat” in these high elevation ecosytems remains a challenge.          

Any comment on the ecological and evolutionary attributes of CAM must acknowledge the often remarkable features of sexual reproduction, especially in orchids so highly prized in horticultural and gardening contexts. It is also fair to observe that this popular zoocentric fascination pays little or no heed to the distinctive autotrophic metabolism that supports such ecological exotica. One must concede that nocturnal pollination of saguaro by bats is not very amenable to experiment, so plant ecophysiologists might be excused their preference to focus on the resilience of these organisms in the face of environmental stress. 

However, few would deny that the cameo performances of night-blooming cacti are an astonishingly beautiful reward for the nightshift efforts that have unraveled our current understanding of CAM (Figure 2.39).


Figure 2.39 A standing ovation for several centuries of CAM research? The spectacular night blooming cactus Epiphyllum oxypetalum. (Photograph courtesy B. Osmond)

The chapter is dedicated to the memory of Thomas Neales (1929-2010) who pioneered Australian research on CAM with Opuntia stricta in the Botany Department, University of Melbourne.