Many proteins self-assemble to form large supramolecular complexes. Numerous examples of these structures have been characterized, ranging from spherical viruses to tubular protein assemblies. Some new kinds of supramolecular structures are just coming to light, while it is likely there are others that have not yet been discovered. The carboxysome is a subcellular structure that has been known for more than 40 years, but whose structural and functional details are just now emerging. This giant polyhedral body is constructed as a closed shell assembled from several thousand protein subunits. Within this protein shell, the carboxysome encapsulates the CO2-fixing enzymes, Rubisco (ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase) and carbonic anhydrase; this arrangement enhances the efficiency of cellular CO2 fixation. The carboxysome is present in many photosynthetic and chemoautotrophic bacteria, and so plays an important role in the global carbon cycle. It also serves as the prototypical member of what appears to be a large class of primitive protein-based organelles in bacteria. A series of crystal structures is beginning to reveal the secrets of how the carboxysome is assembled and how it enhances the efficiency of CO2 fixation. Some of the assembly principles revealed in the carboxysome are reminiscent of those seen in icosahedral viral capsids. In addition, the shell appears to be perforated by pores for metabolite transport into and out of the carboxysome, suggesting comparisons to the pores through oligomeric transmembrane proteins, which serve to transport small molecules across the membrane bilayers of cells and eukaryotic organelles.

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