There has been much interest in the chloroplast-encoded large subunit of ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco) as a target for engineering an increase in net CO(2) fixation in photosynthesis. Improvements in the enzyme would lead to an increase in the production of food, fiber, and renewable energy. Although the large subunit contains the active site, a family of rbcS nuclear genes encodes the Rubisco small subunits, which can also influence the carboxylation catalytic efficiency and CO(2)/O(2) specificity of the enzyme. To further define the role of the small subunit in Rubisco function, small subunits from spinach, Arabidopsis, and sunflower were assembled with algal large subunits by transformation of a Chlamydomonas reinhardtii mutant that lacks the rbcS gene family. Foreign rbcS cDNAs were successfully expressed in Chlamydomonas by fusing them to a Chlamydomonas rbcS transit peptide sequence engineered to contain rbcS introns. Although plant Rubisco generally has greater CO(2)/O(2) specificity but a lower carboxylation V(max) than Chlamydomonas Rubisco, the hybrid enzymes have 3-11% increases in CO(2)/O(2) specificity and retain near normal V(max) values. Thus, small subunits may make a significant contribution to the overall catalytic performance of Rubisco. Despite having normal amounts of catalytically proficient Rubisco, the hybrid mutant strains display reduced levels of photosynthetic growth and lack chloroplast pyrenoids. It appears that small subunits contain the structural elements responsible for targeting Rubisco to the algal pyrenoid, which is the site where CO(2) is concentrated for optimal photosynthesis.