C4 Plants vs. CAM Plants

What's the Difference?

C4 plants and CAM plants are both types of plants that have adapted to survive in arid and hot environments. However, they have different strategies for photosynthesis. C4 plants have specialized cells called bundle sheath cells that help them efficiently capture and store carbon dioxide, allowing them to continue photosynthesis even when stomata are closed to prevent water loss. On the other hand, CAM plants open their stomata at night to take in carbon dioxide and store it as an organic acid. During the day, they close their stomata to prevent water loss and use the stored carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. While both types of plants have evolved to conserve water and thrive in harsh conditions, their mechanisms for carbon fixation differ.


AttributeC4 PlantsCAM Plants
Photosynthesis TypeC4 photosynthesisCAM photosynthesis
Leaf AnatomyKranz anatomyNon-Kranz anatomy
CO2 FixationPEP carboxylasePEP carboxylase
Initial CO2 FixationPEP carboxylasePEP carboxylase
CO2 StorageBundle sheath cellsVacuoles
Stomatal OpeningDaytimeNighttime
Water LossLowVery low
Energy EfficiencyHighLow
Temperature SensitivityLowHigh

Further Detail


Plants have evolved various strategies to optimize their photosynthetic efficiency and adapt to different environmental conditions. Two such strategies are C4 photosynthesis and Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM). While both C4 and CAM plants are considered to be more efficient in water usage and carbon fixation compared to C3 plants, they differ in their anatomical and physiological adaptations. In this article, we will explore the attributes of C4 plants and CAM plants, highlighting their similarities and differences.

Anatomical and Physiological Adaptations

C4 plants and CAM plants both possess unique anatomical and physiological adaptations that allow them to thrive in arid and high-temperature environments. C4 plants have specialized leaf anatomy, with two distinct types of photosynthetic cells: mesophyll cells and bundle sheath cells. Mesophyll cells are responsible for initial carbon fixation, while bundle sheath cells carry out the Calvin cycle. This separation of functions minimizes photorespiration and enhances carbon fixation efficiency.

In contrast, CAM plants have a different anatomical adaptation. They possess specialized cells called "chlorenchyma" that contain large vacuoles to store malic acid or other organic acids during the night. During the day, these acids are released from the vacuoles and broken down to release CO2 for photosynthesis. This temporal separation of carbon fixation and stomatal opening reduces water loss and increases water-use efficiency.

Carbon Fixation Process

When it comes to the carbon fixation process, C4 and CAM plants differ in their strategies. C4 plants use a two-step process to fix carbon dioxide. In the mesophyll cells, CO2 is initially fixed into a four-carbon compound called oxaloacetate, which is then transported to bundle sheath cells. In the bundle sheath cells, the CO2 is released and enters the Calvin cycle for further fixation. This spatial separation of initial carbon fixation and the Calvin cycle minimizes photorespiration and enhances the efficiency of carbon fixation.

On the other hand, CAM plants use a temporal separation of carbon fixation. During the night, CAM plants open their stomata to take in CO2, which is converted into organic acids and stored in vacuoles. During the day, the stomata close to prevent water loss, and the stored organic acids are broken down to release CO2 for the Calvin cycle. This temporal separation allows CAM plants to conserve water while still fixing carbon dioxide efficiently.

Water-Use Efficiency

Both C4 and CAM plants exhibit higher water-use efficiency compared to C3 plants, which is particularly advantageous in arid environments. C4 plants have a higher water-use efficiency due to their ability to suppress photorespiration. The spatial separation of initial carbon fixation and the Calvin cycle in C4 plants allows them to maintain higher CO2 concentrations in the bundle sheath cells, reducing the need for stomatal opening and subsequent water loss.

CAM plants, on the other hand, have an even higher water-use efficiency compared to C4 plants. By opening their stomata only at night, CAM plants can take in CO2 while minimizing water loss through transpiration. The stored organic acids provide a source of CO2 during the day, allowing CAM plants to perform photosynthesis without the need for stomatal opening. This adaptation is particularly beneficial in extremely arid environments where water availability is limited.

Environmental Adaptability

Both C4 and CAM plants have evolved to thrive in different environmental conditions. C4 plants are commonly found in warm, tropical regions with high light intensity and limited water availability. They are well-suited to these conditions due to their efficient carbon fixation and reduced photorespiration.

CAM plants, on the other hand, are often found in arid environments such as deserts and succulent habitats. Their ability to conserve water by opening stomata at night and storing organic acids allows them to survive in extremely dry conditions. CAM plants are also more tolerant of high temperatures and can withstand prolonged periods of drought.

Examples of C4 and CAM Plants

There are numerous examples of C4 and CAM plants in various plant families. Some common examples of C4 plants include maize, sugarcane, sorghum, and many species of grasses. These plants are often found in tropical regions and are important crops for human consumption and animal feed.

Examples of CAM plants include cacti, pineapple, agave, and many other succulent plants. These plants have adapted to arid environments and are known for their ability to store water and survive in extreme conditions.


In conclusion, both C4 and CAM plants have evolved unique anatomical and physiological adaptations to optimize their photosynthetic efficiency and water-use efficiency. While C4 plants use spatial separation of carbon fixation, CAM plants use temporal separation. Both strategies allow these plants to thrive in arid and high-temperature environments, although CAM plants exhibit even higher water-use efficiency. Understanding the attributes of C4 and CAM plants is crucial for studying plant adaptations and developing sustainable agricultural practices in diverse environmental conditions.

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