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Cyanobacteria are tiny organisms that can harness the energy of the sun to power their cells. Many of the tools required for this complex photosynthetic process are packaged into small compartments inside the cell, the carboxysomes. In Synechococcus elongatus, a cyanobacterium that is shaped like a rod, the carboxysomes are positioned at regular intervals along the length of the cell. This ensures that, when the bacterium splits itself in half to reproduce, both daughter cells have the same number of carboxysomes.
Researchers know that, in S. elongatus, a protein called McdA can oscillate from one end of the cell to the other. This protein is responsible for the carboxysomes being in the right place, and some scientists believe that it helps to create an internal skeleton that anchors and drags the compartments into position.
Here, MacCready et al. propose another mechanism and, by combining various approaches, identify a new partner for McdA. This protein, called McdB, is present on the carboxysomes. McdB also binds to McdA, which itself attaches to the nucleoid – the region in the cell that contains the DNA. McdB forces McdA to release itself from DNA, causing the protein to reposition itself along the nucleoid. Because McdB attaches to McdA, the carboxysomes then follow suit, constantly seeking the highest concentrations of McdA bound to nearby DNA. Instead of relying on a cellular skeleton, these two proteins can organize themselves on their own using the nucleoid as a scaffold; in turn, they distribute carboxysomes evenly along the length of a cell.
Plants also obtain their energy from the sun via photosynthesis, but they do not carry carboxysomes. Scientists have tried to introduce these compartments inside plant cells, hoping that it could generate crops with higher yields. Knowing how carboxysomes are organized so they can be passed down from one generation to the next could be important for these experiments.