Background: Many aquatic photosynthetic microorganisms possess an inorganic-carbon-concentrating mechanism that raises the CO2 concentration at the intracellular carboxylation sites, thus compensating for the relatively low affinity of the carboxylating enzyme for its substrate. In cyanobacteria, the concentrating mechanism involves the energy-dependent influx of inorganic carbon, the accumulation of this carbon--largely in the form of HCO3(-)-in the cytoplasm, and the generation of CO2 at carbonic anhydrase sites in close proximity to the carboxylation sites.
Results: During measurements of inorganic carbon fluxes associated with the inorganic-carbon-concentrating mechanism, we observed the surprising fact that several marine photosynthetic microorganisms, including significant contributors to oceanic primary productivity, can serve as a source of CO2 rather than a sink during CO2 fixation. The phycoerythrin-possessing cyanobacterium Synechococcus sp. WH7803 evolved CO2 at a rate that increased with light intensity and attained a value approximately five-fold that for photosynthesis. The external CO2 concentration reached was significantly higher than that predicted for chemical equilibrium between HCO3- and CO2, as confirmed by the rapid decline in the CO2 concentration upon the addition of carbonic anhydrase. Measurements of oxygen exchange between water and CO2, by means of stable isotopes, demonstrated that the evolved CO2 originated from HCO3- taken up and converted intracellularly to CO2 in a light-dependent process.
Conclusions: We report net, sustained CO2 evolution during photosynthesis. The results have implications for energy balance and pH regulation of the cells, for carbon cycling between the cells and the marine environment, and for the observed fractionation of stable carbon isotopes.