© 2018 Author(s). For the past decade, observations of carbonyl sulfide (OCS or COS) have been investigated as a proxy for carbon uptake by plants. OCS is destroyed by enzymes that interact with CO2 during photosynthesis, namely carbonic anhydrase (CA) and RuBisCO, where CA is the more important one. The majority of sources of OCS to the atmosphere are geographically separated from this large plant sink, whereas the sources and sinks of CO2 are co-located in ecosystems. The drawdown of OCS can therefore be related to the uptake of CO2 without the added complication of co-located emissions comparable in magnitude. Here we review the state of our understanding of the global OCS cycle and its applications to ecosystem carbon cycle science. OCS uptake is correlated well to plant carbon uptake, especially at the regional scale. OCS can be used in conjunction with other independent measures of ecosystem function, like solar-induced fluorescence and carbon and water isotope studies. More work needs to be done to generate global coverage for OCS observations and to link this powerful atmospheric tracer to systems where fundamental questions concerning the carbon and water cycle remain.