Issue 30, 2017

Direct characterization of the native structure and mechanics of cyanobacterial carboxysomes


Carboxysomes are proteinaceous organelles that play essential roles in enhancing carbon fixation in cyanobacteria and some proteobacteria. These self-assembling organelles encapsulate Ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco) and carbonic anhydrase using a protein shell structurally resembling an icosahedral viral capsid. The protein shell serves as a physical barrier to protect enzymes from the cytosol and a selectively permeable membrane to mediate transport of enzyme substrates and products. The structural and mechanical nature of native carboxysomes remain unclear. Here, we isolate functional β-carboxysomes from the cyanobacterium Synechococcus elongatus PCC7942 and perform the first characterization of the macromolecular architecture and inherent physical mechanics of single β-carboxysomes using electron microscopy, atomic force microscopy (AFM) and proteomics. Our results illustrate that the intact β-carboxysome comprises three structural domains, a single-layered icosahedral shell, an inner layer and paracrystalline arrays of interior Rubisco. We also observe the protein organization of the shell and partial β-carboxysomes that likely serve as the β-carboxysome assembly intermediates. Furthermore, the topography and intrinsic mechanics of functional β-carboxysomes are determined in native conditions using AFM and AFM-based nanoindentation, revealing the flexible organization and soft mechanical properties of β-carboxysomes compared to rigid viruses. Our study provides new insights into the natural characteristics of β-carboxysome organization and nanomechanics, which can be extended to diverse bacterial microcompartments and are important considerations for the design and engineering of functional carboxysomes in other organisms to supercharge photosynthesis. It offers an approach for inspecting the structural and mechanical features of synthetic metabolic organelles and protein scaffolds in bioengineering.

Graphical abstract: Direct characterization of the native structure and mechanics of cyanobacterial carboxysomes

Supplementary files

Article information

Article type
10 Apr 2017
06 Jun 2017
First published
08 Jun 2017
This article is Open Access
Creative Commons BY license

Nanoscale, 2017,9, 10662-10673

Direct characterization of the native structure and mechanics of cyanobacterial carboxysomes

M. Faulkner, J. Rodriguez-Ramos, G. F. Dykes, S. V. Owen, S. Casella, D. M. Simpson, R. J. Beynon and L. Liu, Nanoscale, 2017, 9, 10662 DOI: 10.1039/C7NR02524F

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