Spencer Whitney

Dr Whitney undertook his BSc (Botany, Biochemistry and Chemistry) honours and PhD at James Cook University of North Queensland where he discovered unique molecular and biochemical features of the photosynthetic CO2-fixing enzyme, Rubisco, from the symbiotic marine microalgae found in corals and clams. In 1996 he moved to the ANU to begin his postdoctoral studies and expanded his interest in interrogating Rubisco biology using plastome transformation biotechnology. His pivotal work on modifying plant photosynthesis via Rubisco engineering led to him being awarded the Goldacre Award in 2002 from the Australian Society of Plant Scientists and an International Photosynthesis Congress Young Scientist Award in 2004. From 2004-09 he held an ARC Research Fellowship and in 2009 was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship. His research is an integral part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis and the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Research interests

Synthetic photosynthesis; Improving plant CO2 capture and growth efficiency.

My research focuses on utilising synthetic biology to scrutinize the assembly, metabolic regulation and kinetic plasticity of the biospheres most abundant protein, the photosynthetic CO2-fixing enzyme Rubisco (ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase). The research provides training in molecular biology, protein engineering (directed evolution), enzyme kinetics, biochemistry, plastome transformation, tissue culture, measuring leaf photosynthesis and plant growth.

Despites Rubisco's pivotal role in photosynthetic carbon assimilation - catalysing the primary step of incorporating CO2 into carbohydrates that are used to store and transport energy - it is surprisingly an inefficient enzyme in need of improvement. It constitutes about 20 to 30% of soluble leaf protein due to its inefficiency. The catalytic inadequacies of Rubisco (such as a slow turnover rate and poor ability to distinguish CO2 from O2) frequently limit the growth capacity of many plants, including most crops. As such, Rubisco has been studied intensively as a prime target for genetic engineering as a means to supercharge photosynthesis and improve growth efficiency. Towards this significant challenge, the primary foci of research in the Whitney laboratory utilises recent technological and conceptual breakthroughs to study Rubisco biogenesis, modify its catalysis, understand its regulation by Rubisco activase and generally tackle the challenges faced in developing strategies for enhancing Rubisco activity to improve plant productivity.

  • Conlan, B, Birch, R, Kelso, C et al 2019, 'BSD2 is a Rubisco-specific assembly chaperone, forms intermediary hetero-oligomeric complexes, and is nonlimiting to growth in tobacco', Plant Cell and Environment, vol. 42, no. 4, pp. 1287-1301.
  • Conlan, B & Whitney, S 2018, 'Preparing Rubisco for a tune up', Nature Plants, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 12-13pp.
  • Sonawane, B, Sharwood, R, Whitney, S et al 2018, 'Shade compromises the photosynthetic efficiency of NADP-ME less than that of PEP-CK and NAD-ME C4 grasses', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 69, no. 12, pp. 3053-3068pp.
  • Gomez-Fernandez, B, Garcia-Ruiz, E, Martin-Diaz, J et al 2018, 'Directed -in vitro- evolution of Precambrian and extant Rubiscos', Scientific Reports, vol. 8, no. 5532, pp. 1-11pp.
  • Sharwood, R, Crous, K, Whitney, S et al 2017, 'Linking photosynthesis and leaf N allocation under future elevated CO2 and climate warming in Eucalyptus globulus', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 68, no. 5, pp. 1157-1167.
  • Wilson, R & Whitney, S 2017, 'Improving CO2 Fixation by Enhancing Rubisco Performance', in Miguel Alcalde (ed.), Directed Enzyme Evolution: Advances and Applications, Springer, Spain, pp. 101-126pp.
  • Heureux, A, Young, J, Whitney, S et al 2017, 'The role of Rubisco kinetics and pyrenoid morphology in shaping the CCM of haptophyte microalgae', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 68, no. 14, pp. 3959-3969.
  • Sonawane, B, Sharwood, R, von Caemmerer, S et al 2017, 'Short-term thermal photosynthetic responses of C4 grasses are independent of the biochemical subtype', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 68, no. 20, pp. 5583-5597.
  • Bracher, A, Whitney, S, Hartl, F et al 2017, 'Biogenesis and Metabolic Maintenance of Rubisco', Annual Review of Plant Biology, vol. 68, pp. 29-60.
  • Sharwood, R, Sonawane, B, Ghannoum, O et al 2016, 'Improved analysis of C-4 and C-3 photosynthesis via refined in vitro assays of their carbon fixation biochemistry', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 67, no. 10, pp. 3137-3148.
  • Sharwood, R, Ghannoum, O & Whitney, S 2016, 'Prospects for improving CO2 fixation in C-3-crops through understanding C-4-Rubisco biogenesis and catalytic diversity', Current Opinion in Plant Biology, vol. 31, pp. 135-142.
  • Young, J, Heureux, A, Sharwood, R et al 2016, 'Large variation in the Rubisco kinetics of diatoms reveals diversity among their carbon-concentrating mechanisms', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 67, no. 11, pp. 3445-3456.
  • Sharwood, R, Ghannoum, O & Whitney, S 2016, 'Prospects for improving CO2 fixation in C-3-crops through understanding C-4-Rubisco biogenesis and catalytic diversity', Current Opinion in Plant Biology, vol. 31, pp. 135-142.
  • Sharwood, R, Ghannoum, O, Kapralov, M et al 2016, 'Temperature responses of Rubisco from Paniceae grasses provide opportunities for improving C-3 photosynthesis', Nature Plants, vol. 2, no. 12, pp. 16186-16186.
  • Wilson, R, Alonso, H & Whitney, S 2016, 'Evolving Methanococcoides burtonii archaeal Rubisco for improved photosynthesis and plant growth', Scientific Reports, vol. 6, pp. -.
  • Whitney, S, Birch, R, Kelso, C et al 2015, 'Improving recombinant Rubisco biogenesis, plant photosynthesis and growth by coexpressing its ancillary RAF1 chaperone', PNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 112, no. 11, pp. 3564-3569.
  • Wilson, R & Whitney, S 2015, 'Photosynthesis: Getting it together for CO2 fixation', Nature Plants, vol. 1, pp. -.
  • Hingorani, K, Pace, R, Whitney, S et al 2014, 'Photo-oxidation of tyrosine in a bio-engineered bacterioferritin 'reaction centre'-A protein model for artificial photosynthesis', Biochimica et Biophysica Acta: Bioenergetics, vol. 1837, no. 10, pp. 1821-1834.
  • von Caemmerer, S, Tazoe, Y, Evans, J et al 2014, 'Exploiting transplastomically modified Rubisco to rapidly measure natural diversity in its carbon isotope discrimination using tuneable diode laser spectroscopy', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 65, no. 13, pp. 3759-3767.
  • Whitney, S & Sharwood, R 2014, 'Plastid Transformation for Rubisco Engineering and Protocols for Assessing Expression', in Pal Maliga (ed.), Chloroplast Biotechnology. Methods and Protocols, Humana Press, New York, pp. 245-262.
  • Sharwood, R & Whitney, S 2014, 'Correlating Rubisco catalytic and sequence diversity within C3 plants with changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations', Plant Cell and Environment, vol. 37, no. 9, pp. 1981-1984.
  • Pengelly, J, Forster, B, von Caemmerer, S, Badger M, Price GD & Whitney SM 2014, 'Transplastomic integration of a cyanobacterial bicarbonate transporter into tobacco chloroplasts', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 65, no. 12, pp. 3071-3080.
  • Tcherkez, G, Bathellier, C, Stuart-Williams, H et al 2013, 'D2O solvent isotope effects suggest uniform energy barriers in ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase catalysis', Biochemistry, vol. 52, no. 5, pp. 869-877.
  • Galmes, J, Perdomo, J, Flexas, J and Whitney, SM. 2013, 'Photosynthetic characterization of Rubisco transplantomic lines reveals alterations on photochemistry and mesophyll conductance', Photosynthesis Research, vol. 115, no. 2-3, pp. 153-166.
  • Gready, J, Kannappan, B, Agrawa, A, Street, K, Stalker, DM and Whitney, SM. 2013, 'Status of options for improving photosynthetic capacity through promotion of Rubisco performance: Rubisco natural diversity and re-engineering, and other parts of C3 pathways', Applying photosynthesis research to improvement of food crops, ed. Gready JE, Dwyer SA, Evans JR, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, Canberra, pp. 96-111.
  • Parry, M, Andralojc, P, Scales, J, Salvucci, ME, Carmo-Silva, E, Alonso, H, Whitney, SM. 2013, 'Rubisco activity and regulation as targets for crop improvement', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 64, no. 3, pp. 14pp.
  • Price, G, Pengelly, J, Forster, B, von Caemmerer, S, Badger, MR, Price, GD and Whitney, SM. 2013, 'The cyanobacterial CCM as a source of genes for improving photosynthetic CO2 fixation in crop species', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 64, no. 3, pp. 753-768.
  • Tcherkez, G, Bathellier, C, Stuart-Williams, H, Whitney SM, et al 2013, 'D2O solvent isotope effects suggest uniform energy barriers in ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase catalysis', Biochemistry, vol. 52, no. 5, pp. 869-877.
  • Whitney, S, Houtz, R & Alonso, H 2011, 'Advancing our understanding and capacity to engineer nature's CO2-sequestering enzyme, Rubisco', Plant Physiology, vol. 155, no. 1, pp. 27-35.
  • Blayney, M, Whitney, S & Beck, J 2011, 'NanoESI Mass Spectrometry of Rubisco and Rubisco Activase Structures and Their Interactions with Nucleotides and Sugar Phosphates', Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, vol. 22, no. 9, pp. 1588-1601.
  • Whitney, S, Sharwood, R, Orr, D et al 2011, 'Isoleucine 309 acts as a C4 catalytic switch that increases ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (rubisco) carboxylation rate in Flaveria', PNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 108, no. 35, pp. 14688-14693.
  • Sharwood, R & Whitney, S 2010, 'Engineering the Sunflower Rubisco Subunits into Tobacco Chloroplasts: New Considerations', in Constantin A. Rebeiz et al (ed.), The Chloroplast: Basics and Applications, Springer, Netherlands, pp. 285-306.
  • Whitney, S, Kane, H, Houtz, R et al 2009, 'Rubisco Oligomers Composed of Linked Small and Large Subunits Assemble in Tobacco Plastids and Have Higher Affinities for CO2 and O2', Plant Physiology, vol. 149, no. 4, pp. 1887-1895.
  • Alonso, H, Blayney, M, Beck, J et al 2009, 'Substrate-induced Assembly of Methanococcoides burtonii D-Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate Carboxylase/Oxygenase Dimers into Decamers', Journal of Biological Chemistry, vol. 284, no. 49, pp. 33876-33882.
  • Takahashi, S, Whitney, S & Badger, M 2009, 'Different thermal sensitivity of the repair of photodamaged photosynthetic machinery in cultured Symbiodinium species', PNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 106, no. 9, pp. 3237-3242.
  • Takahashi, S, Whitney, S, Itoh, S et al 2008, 'Heat stress causes inhibition of the de novo synthesis of antenna proteins and photobleaching in cultured Symbiodinium', PNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 105, no. 11, pp. 4203-4208.
  • Mueller-Cajar, O & Whitney, S 2008, 'Directing the evolution of Rubisco and Rubisco activase: first impressions of a new tool for photosynthesis research', Photosynthesis Research, vol. 98, pp. 667-675.
  • Mueller-Cajar, O & Whitney, S 2008, 'Evolving improved Synechococcus Rubisco functional expression in Escherichia coli', Biochemical Journal, vol. 414, pp. 205-214.
  • Hendrickson, L, Sharwood, R, Ludwig, M et al 2008, 'The effects of Rubisco activase on C4 photosynthesis and metabolism at high temperature', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 59, no. 7, pp. 1789-1798.
  • Sharwood, R, von Caemmerer, S, Maliga, P et al 2008, 'The Catalytic properties of hybrid Rubisco comprising tobacco small and sunflower large subunits mirror the kinetically equivalent source rubiscos and can support tobacco growth 1[W][OA]', Plant Physiology, vol. 146, no. 1, pp. 83-96.
  • Whitney, S & Sharwood, R 2008, 'Construction of a tobacco master line to improve Rubisco engineering in chloroplasts', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 59, no. 7, pp. 1909-1921.
  • Kublen, D, Whitney, S, Moore, P et al 2008, 'The biochemistry of Rubisco in Flaveria', Journal of Experimental Botany, vol. 59, no. 7, pp. 1767-1777.
  • Mueller-Cajar, O, Morell, M & Whitney, S 2007, 'Directed Evolution of Rubisco in Escherichia coli Reveals a Specificity-Determining Hydrogen Bond in the Form 11 Enzyme', Biochemistry, vol. 46, pp. 14067-14074.
  • Long, B, Badger, M, Whitney, S et al 2007, 'Analysis of Carboxysomes from Synechococcus PCC7942 Reveals Multiple Rubisco complexes with Carboxysomal Proteins CcmM and CcaA', Journal of Biological Chemistry, vol. 282, no. 40, pp. 29323-29335.
  • Greene, D, Whitney, S & Matsumura, I 2007, 'Artificially evolved Synechococcus PCC6301 Rubisco variants exhibit improvements in folding and catalytic efficiency', Biochemical Journal, vol. 404, pp. 517-524.
  • McNevin, D, Badger, M, Whitney, S et al 2007, 'Differences in Carbon Isotope Discrimination of Three Variants of D-Ribulose-1,5-biophosphate Carboxylase/Oxygenase Reflect Differences in Their Catalytic Mechanisms', Journal of Biological Chemistry, vol. 282, no. 49, pp. 36068-36076.
  • Whitney, S & Sharwood, R 2007, 'Linked Rubisco Subunits Can Assemble into Functional Oligomers without Impeding Catalytic Performance', Journal of Biological Chemistry, vol. 282, no. 6, pp. 3809-3818.
  • Emlyn-Jones, D, Woodger, F, Price, G et al 2006, 'RbcX can function as a Rubisco-chaperonin, but is non essential in Synechococcus PCC7942', Plant and Cell Physiology, vol. 47, no. 12, pp. 1630-1640.
  • Emlyn-Jones, D, Woodger, F, Andrews, T et al 2006, 'A Synechococcus PCC7942 _ccmM (Cyanophyceae) mutant pseudoreverts to air growth without regaining carboxysomes', Journal of Phycology, vol. 42, pp. 769-777.
  • Andrews, T & Whitney, S 2005, 'Manipulating Ribulose Bisphosphate Carboxylase/Oxygenase in the Chloroplasts of Higher Plants', in A F Collings and C Critchley (ed.), Artificial Photosynthesis: From Basic Biology to Industrial Application, Wiley-VCH Verlag GMBH, Weinheim, pp. 243-261.
  • Baker, R, Catanzariti, A, Karunasekara, Y et al 2005, 'Using Deubiquitylating Enzymes as Research Tools', in Raymond J. Deshaies (ed.), Ubiquitin and Protein Degradation, Elsevier, California, pp. 540-554.
  • Leggat, W, Whitney, S & Yellowlees, D 2004, 'Is coral bleaching due to the instability of the zooxanthellae dark reactions', Symbiosis, vol. 37, pp. 137-154.
  • Andrews, T & Whitney, S 2003, 'Manipulating ribulose biphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase in the chloroplasts of higher plants', Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, vol. 414, pp. 159-169.
  • Whitney, S & Andrews, T 2003, 'Photosynthesis and growth of tobacco with a substituted bacterial Rubisco mirror the properties of the introduced enzyme', Plant Physiology, vol. 133, pp. 287-294.
  • Leggat, W, Marendy, E, Baillie, B et al 2002, 'Dinoflagellate symbioses:strategies and adaptation for the acquisition and fixation of inorganic carbon', Functional Plant Biology, vol. 29, pp. 309-322.
  • Whitney, S & Andrews, T 2001, 'Plastome-encoded bacterial ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (RubisCO) supports photosynthesis and growth in tobacco.', PNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 98, pp. 14738-14743.
  • Whitney, S, Baldet, P, Hudson, G et al 2001, 'Form 1 Rubiscos from non-green algae are expressed abundantly but not assembled in tobacco chloroplasts', The Plant Journal, vol. 26, pp. 535-547.
  • Whitney, S & Andrews, T 2001, 'The gene for the ribulose-1,5-biphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco) small subunit relocated to the plastid genome of tobacco directs the synthesis of small subunits that assemble into Rubisco', The Plant Cell, vol. 13, pp. 193-205.
  • Whitney, S, von Caemmerer, S, Hudson, G et al 1999, 'Directed mutation of the Rubisco large subunit of Tobacco influences photorespiration and growth', Plant Physiology, vol. 121, no. 2, pp. 579-588.

The Whitney Lab has hosted honours and undergraduate projects over the last few years. Please contact Spencer to discuss research possibilities within the areas listed in our research projects.