The age of Rubisco: the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis


Corresponding author: E. G. Nisbet. Tel.: +44-1784-443581; fax: +44-1784-471780; e-mail:


The evolutionary history of oxygenesis is controversial. Form I of ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco) in oxygen-tolerant organisms both enables them to carry out oxygenic extraction of carbon from air and enables the competitive process of photorespiration. Carbon isotopic evidence is presented from ~2.9 Ga stromatolites from Steep Rock, Ontario, Canada, ~2.9 Ga stromatolites from Mushandike, Zimbabwe, and ~2.7 Ga stromatolites in the Belingwe belt, Zimbabwe. The data imply that in all three localities the reef-building autotrophs included organisms using Form I Rubisco. This inference, though not conclusive, is supported by other geochemical evidence that these stromatolites formed in oxic conditions. Collectively, the implication is that oxygenic photosynthesizers first appeared ~2.9 Ga ago, and were abundant 2.7–2.65 Ga ago.

Rubisco specificity (its preference for CO2 over O2) and compensation constraints (the limits on carbon fixation) may explain the paradox that despite the inferred evolution of oxygenesis 2.9 Ga ago, the Late Archaean air was anoxic. The atmospheric CO2:O2 ratio, and hence greenhouse warming, may reflect Form I Rubisco's specificity for CO2 over O2. The system may be bistable under the warming Sun, with liquid oceans occurring in either anoxic (H2O with abundant CH4 plus CO2) or oxic (H2O with more abundant CO2, but little CH4) greenhouse states. Transition between the two states would involve catastrophic remaking of the biosphere. Build-up of a very high atmospheric inventory of CO2 in the 2.3 Ga glaciation may have allowed the atmosphere to move up the CO2 compensation line to reach stability in an oxygen-rich system. Since then, Form I Rubisco specificity and consequent compensation limits may have maintained the long-term atmospheric disproportion between O2 and CO2, which is now close to both CO2 and O2 compensation barriers.