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2.3.4 - Does photorespiration represent lost productivity?

Such a substantial loss of carbon concurrent with CO2 fixation raises the question of whether eliminating or minimising photorespiration in C3 plants could enhance their yield, and specifically that of major crop plants such as rice, wheat, grain legumes, oil seeds and trees, none of which are C4 species. Faced with an expanding world human population and an increasing demand for food and animal feed, enhanced agricultural productivity is a global necessity. In its most obvious form a scenario which alters or removes the oxygenase function of Rubisco could achieve such a goal. In an early review of the process of photorespiration in plants, Ogren (1984) noted that ‘the sequence of reactions constituting the photorespiratory pathway in C3 plants appears to be firmly established’ and he went on to suggest that, although reducing the loss of fixed carbon as CO2 in the process may be a valid goal to improve the yield of crop plants, it is not clear whether or not this can be achieved by specific changes to the kinetic and catalytic properties of Rubisco alone.

Photorespiration may be loosely considered as a wasteful process because previously fixed carbon is lost and energy is dissipated. Ideal destinations for photoassimilates include synthetic pathways leading to fixed biomass and respiratory pathways for re-release of fixed energy in a controlled sequence of reactions leading to ATP and NAD(P)H for use in other synthetic events.

However, situations do exist where energy dissipation via photorespiration can be beneficial. For example, photo-oxidative damage can be alleviated in shade-adapted plants that experience strong irradiance if photorespiratory processes are allowed to proceed. Depriving such plants of an external oxygen supply, and hence preventing photosynthetic carbon oxidation, will exacerbate chloroplast lesions due to strong irradiance. Photosynthetic variants which obviate photo-respiratory loss, and most notably C4 plants, integrate structure and function in a way that forestalls photo-oxidative damage and leads to their outstanding performance under warm conditions. Environmental factors that constitute selection pressure for such photosynthetic adaptation are reviewed by Sage et al (2012).