Getting the most out of natural variation in C4 photosynthesis

C4 photosynthesis is a complex trait that has a high degree of natural variation, involving anatomical and biochemical changes relative to the ancestral C3 state. It has evolved at least 66 times across a variety of lineages and the evolutionary route from C3 to C4 is likely conserved but not necessarily genetically identical. As such, a variety of C4 species are needed to identify what is fundamental to the C4 evolutionary process in a global context. In order to identify the genetic components of C4 form and function, a number of species are used as genetic models. These include Zea mays (maize), Sorghum bicolor (sorghum), Setaria viridis (Setaria), Flaveria bidentis, and Cleome gynandra. Each of these species has different benefits and challenges associated with its use as a model organism. Here, we propose that RNA profiling of a large sampling of C4, C3-C4, and C3 species, from as many lineages as possible, will allow identification of candidate genes necessary and sufficient to confer C4 anatomy and/or biochemistry. Furthermore, C4 model species will play a critical role in the functional characterization of these candidate genes and identification of their regulatory elements, by providing a platform for transformation and through the use of gene expression profiles in mesophyll and bundle sheath cells and along the leaf developmental gradient. Efforts should be made to sequence the genomes of F. bidentis and C. gynandra and to develop congeneric C3 species as genetic models for comparative studies. In combination, such resources would facilitate discovery of common and unique C4 regulatory mechanisms across genera.