C3 Plants: Definition, Types & Examples

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  • 0:00 C3 Plants
  • 1:15 The Calvin Cycle
  • 2:25 Three Types of Photosynthesis
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Plants have evolved specific adaptations to allow them to survive in harsh climates. One of these adaptations is the way in which the plant undergoes photosynthesis. This lesson will focus on C3 plants, which use the most basic type of photosynthesis.

C3 Plants

Kermit the Frog once said, 'it's not easy being green.' Now, he may not have been talking about plants, but he might as well have because plants must overcome numerous challenges in order to make their own food, survive and thrive in hostile environments.

There are thousands of different types of plants, but only three different ways in which they can undergo photosynthesis, or taking carbon dioxide from the air, water from their roots, and sunlight and transforming it into sugar and oxygen.

Carbon dioxide is a molecule made up of a carbon and two oxygen atoms, but it may be more familiar to you as the molecule that comes out of your mouth every time you exhale! It's pretty amazing that plants can make their own food out of that stuff, isn't it?

Here are the three types of plants, each undergoing a slightly different type of photosynthesis:

  • C3 plants are the most common and the most efficient at photosynthesis in cool, wet climates.
  • C4 plants are most efficient at photosynthesis in hot, sunny climates.
  • CAM plants are adapted to avoid water loss during photosynthesis so they are best in deserts.

Before we can fully understand each type of plant, we need some background information.

The Calvin Cycle

Have you ever wondered how plants turn carbon dioxide, water and sunlight into sugar? The Calvin cycle is part of this process and, in order to understand C3 plants, you need a brief lesson in the Calvin cycle:

  1. Carbon dioxide enters through the tiny pores on a plant's leaf called stomata (or stoma if it's just one). Sometimes the C3 plant accidentally takes in oxygen, too, which can slow down the process.
  2. This carbon dioxide then combines with a sugar with the help of an enzyme called RuBisCO. An enzyme is a substance that helps reactions move along faster.
  3. This sugar-carbon dioxide combination eventually becomes a molecule made up of three carbon atoms, and that is where C3 plants get their name. For C3 plants, this process takes place in a chloroplast, the green cells in plants that help with photosynthesis. These are what make a plant green!
  4. The cycle continues and, with the help of energy from the sun, sugar is made as well as more RuBisCO for future use.

Three Types of Photosynthesis

In order to understand why certain plants do better in certain environments, let's take a look at each type of plant. Note: C3 plants undergo C3 photosynthesis, C4 plants undergo C4 photosynthesis and CAM plants undergo CAM photosynthesis.

C3 Photosynthesis

These types of plants, as mentioned earlier, do better in cooler, wetter climates. They keep their stomata open during the day. In hot, dry areas, it is dangerous to leave stomata open during the day because the plants lose water through the stomata. The Calvin cycle takes place in the chloroplast for C3 plants.

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