Constraining the timing of the Great Oxidation Event within the Rubisco phylogenetic tree

Geobiology. 2017 Sep;15(5):628-640. doi: 10.1111/gbi.12243. Epub 2017 Jul 3.


Ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate (RuBP) carboxylase/oxygenase (RuBisCO, or Rubisco) catalyzes a key reaction by which inorganic carbon is converted into organic carbon in the metabolism of many aerobic and anaerobic organisms. Across the broader Rubisco protein family, homologs exhibit diverse biochemical characteristics and metabolic functions, but the evolutionary origins of this diversity are unclear. Evidence of the timing of Rubisco family emergence and diversification of its different forms has been obscured by a meager paleontological record of early Earth biota, their subcellular physiology and metabolic components. Here, we use computational models to reconstruct a Rubisco family phylogenetic tree, ancestral amino acid sequences at branching points on the tree, and protein structures for several key ancestors. Analysis of historic substitutions with respect to their structural locations shows that there were distinct periods of amino acid substitution enrichment above background levels near and within its oxygen-sensitive active site and subunit interfaces over the divergence between Form III (associated with anoxia) and Form I (associated with oxia) groups in its evolutionary history. One possible interpretation is that these periods of substitutional enrichment are coincident with oxidative stress exerted by the rise of oxygenic photosynthesis in the Precambrian era. Our interpretation implies that the periods of Rubisco substitutional enrichment inferred near the transition from anaerobic Form III to aerobic Form I ancestral sequences predate the acquisition of Rubisco by fully derived cyanobacterial (i.e., dual photosystem-bearing, oxygen-evolving) clades. The partitioning of extant lineages at high clade levels within our Rubisco phylogeny indicates that horizontal transfer of Rubisco is a relatively infrequent event. Therefore, it is possible that the mutational enrichment periods between the Form III and Form I common ancestral sequences correspond to the adaptation of key oxygen-sensitive components of Rubisco prior to, or coincident with, the Great Oxidation Event.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Cyanobacteria / metabolism
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Photosynthesis
  • Phylogeny*
  • Ribulose-Bisphosphate Carboxylase / chemistry*
  • Ribulose-Bisphosphate Carboxylase / metabolism*
  • Time Factors


  • Ribulose-Bisphosphate Carboxylase