Questions about the complexity of chloroplast ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase

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Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco; EC has played a central role in our understanding of chloroplast biogenesis and photosynthesis. In particular, its catalysis of the rate-limiting step of CO2 fixation, and the mutual competition of CO2 and O2 at the active site, makes Rubisco a prime focus for genetically engineering an increase in photosynthetic productivity. Although it remains difficult to manipulate the chloroplast-encoded large subunit and nuclear-encoded small subunit of crop plants, much has been learned about the structure/function relationships of Rubisco by expressing prokaryotic genes in Escherichia coli or by exploiting classical genetics and chloroplast transformation of the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. However, the complexity of chloroplast Rubisco in land plants cannot be completely addressed with the existing model organisms. Two subunits encoded in different genetic compartments have coevolved in the formation of the Rubisco holoenzyme, but the function of the small subunit remains largely unknown. The subunits are posttranslationally modified, assembled via a complex process, and degraded in regulated ways. There is also a second chloroplast protein, Rubisco activase, that is responsible for removing inhibitory molecules from the large-subunit active site. Many of these complex interactions and processes display species specificity. This means that attempts to engineer or discover a better Rubisco may be futile if one cannot transfer the better enzyme to a compatible host. We must frame the questions that address this problem of chloroplast-Rubisco complexity. We must work harder to find the answers.

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