C4 Plants: Definition, Types & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a C4 Plant?
  • 1:25 C4 Photosynthesis Process
  • 2:56 Examples of C4 Plants
  • 3:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brekke Peterson Munks
After exploring this lesson, you'll be able to define and identify C4 plants. Learn about what a C4 plant is and what makes C4 plants unique. Then you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

What Is a C4 Plant?

A C4 plant sounds like something that should be associated with Hollywood action movies! However, it is just a type of plant that uses a specific photosynthesis mechanism (C4 photosynthesis) in order to avoid photorespiration. Photorespiration is a wasteful reaction that occurs when plants take in oxygen and give out carbon dioxide instead of taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

All plants make energy during the Calvin cycle (the process where plants take up CO2 and turn it into sugar energy); however, in hot, sunny, dry climates, C4 plants are much more efficient than C3 plants (plants that perform C3 photosynthesis - the most common type).

The difference between C3 and C4 plants is that C4 plants make a four-carbon sugar during the Calvin cycle instead of two three-carbon sugars as in C3 plants. This larger sugar in C4 plants brings more CO2 to the RuBisCO enzyme, reducing oxygen levels and making the process energy-intensive. More CO2 is brought into the process because of how cells are located.

C4 plants like very sunny areas with warm temperatures. They can withstand cool evening temperatures.

C4 Photosynthesis Process

To understand what a C4 plant cell is like, we must start from where the CO2 enters the plant.

1. Carbon dioxide comes into the plant via stomata. These are cells that open and close on a leaf for water and gas exchange.

2. The CO2 then enters the mesophyll cells. These are cells that are located toward the surface of a plant leaf and are where photosynthesis typically occurs. However, in C4 plants, these cells are exposed to oxygen and have no RuBisCO to do photosynthesis.

3. The CO2 joins with another carbon compound to make a C4 chemical called oxaloacetic acid.

4. This compound then is changed into a four-carbon acid and moves into a set of cells called the bundle sheath cells. These cells are located deep in the leaf tissue, and oxygen does not hinder them.

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