The Carboxysome Shell Is Permeable to Protons
Bacterial microcompartments (BMCs) are polyhedral organelles found in an increasingly wide variety of bacterial species. These structures, typified by carboxysomes of cyanobacteria and many chemoautotrophs, function to compartmentalize important reaction sequences of metabolic pathways. Unlike their eukaryotic counterparts, which are surrounded by lipid bilayer membranes, these microbial organelles are bounded by a thin protein shell that is assembled from multiple copies of a few different polypeptides. The main shell proteins form hexamers whose edges interact to create the thin sheets that form the facets of the polyhedral BMCs. Each hexamer contains a central pore hypothesized to mediate flux of metabolites into and out of the organelle. Because several distinctly different metabolic processes are found in the various BMCs studied to date, it has been proposed that a common advantage to packaging these pathways within shell-bound compartments is to optimize the concentration of volatile metabolites in the BMC by maintaining an interior pH that is lower than that of the cytoplasm. We have tested this idea by recombinantly fusing a pH-sensitive green fluorescent protein (GFP) to ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (RubisCO), the major enzyme component inside the carboxysome. Our results suggest that the carboxysomal pH is similar to that of its external environment and that the protein shell does not constitute a proton barrier. The explanation for the sundry BMC functions must therefore be sought in the characteristics of the pores that traverse their shells.