Role of the small subunit in ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase

Arch Biochem Biophys. 2003 Jun 15;414(2):141-9. doi: 10.1016/s0003-9861(03)00171-1.


Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco) catalyzes the rate-limiting step of CO2 fixation in photosynthesis, but O2 competes with CO2 for substrate ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate, leading to the loss of fixed carbon. Interest in genetically engineering improvements in carboxylation catalytic efficiency and CO2/O2 specificity has focused on the chloroplast-encoded large subunit because it contains the active site. However, there is another type of subunit in the holoenzyme of plants, which, like the large subunit, is present in eight copies. The role of these nuclear-encoded small subunits in Rubisco structure and function is poorly understood. Small subunits may have originated during evolution to concentrate large-subunit active sites, but the extensive divergence of structures among prokaryotes, algae, and land plants seems to indicate that small subunits have more-specialized functions. Furthermore, plants and green algae contain families of differentially expressed small subunits, raising the possibility that these subunits may regulate the structure or function of Rubisco. Studies of interspecific hybrid enzymes have indicated that small subunits are required for maximal catalysis and, in several cases, contribute to CO2/O2 specificity. Although small-subunit genetic engineering remains difficult in land plants, directed mutagenesis of cyanobacterial and green-algal genes has identified specific structural regions that influence catalytic efficiency and CO2/O2 specificity. It is thus apparent that small subunits will need to be taken into account as strategies are developed for creating better Rubisco enzymes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Binding Sites
  • Chlamydomonas reinhardtii / enzymology
  • Chloroplasts / enzymology*
  • Crystallography, X-Ray
  • Gene Deletion
  • Genetic Engineering
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mutagenesis, Site-Directed
  • Mutation
  • Photosynthesis
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Ribulose-Bisphosphate Carboxylase / chemistry*
  • Ribulose-Bisphosphate Carboxylase / genetics
  • Ribulose-Bisphosphate Carboxylase / metabolism*
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid


  • Ribulose-Bisphosphate Carboxylase