Scientists Say: Rubisco

Much of life on planet Earth would not exist without this enzyme

the sun sets over a field of corn

Rubisco is a key protein that helps plants grow. Its job is to pull carbon dioxide from the air into the plant. Through photosynthesis, plants use that carbon dioxide to build sugars that feed their growth.

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Rubisco (noun, “Roo-BIS-koh”)

Rubisco is a key protein in photosynthesis. That’s the process by which plants use carbon dioxide, or CO2, from the air to make the sugars that feed their growth. Rubisco is the protein that snatches CO2 molecules out of the atmosphere. The protein then adds that CO2 to a plant’s chemical assembly line for making sugars. Rubisco is thought to be the most abundant protein in the world. Without it, sunlight would not be able to feed the plants that feed us.

But Rubisco is actually pretty bad at its job. About 20 percent of the time, Rubisco accidentally grabs an oxygen molecule from the air rather than CO2. That mistake produces toxic compounds inside a plant, which the plant has to get rid of. Doing that requires energy that the plant could be using to grow. Scientists are trying to find ways to help Rubisco work better. If the molecule worked more efficiently, plants could waste less energy on fixing the enzyme’s mistakes and use that energy to grow bigger. That could lead to better crop yields to feed more people. 

In a sentence

Rubisco grabbing carbon dioxide out of the air is just the first step in photosynthesis.

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Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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