Flipping the photosynthesis switch

A molecular tag turns photosynthesis on and off by changing the colour of leaves.
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From left to right: a normal specimen of Arabidopsis thaliana; a specimen with a mutation in the TOC complex, which turns the plant yellow; and a specimen with the same mutation that is also lacking SUMO, which appears healthier and greener than the second plant. Image credit: Samuel Watson (CC BY 4.0)

All green plants grow by converting light energy into chemical energy. They do this using a process called photosynthesis, which happens inside compartments in plant cells called chloroplasts. Chloroplasts use thousands of different proteins to make chemical energy. Some of these proteins allow the chloroplasts to absorb light energy using chlorophyll, the pigment that makes leaves green. The vast majority of these proteins are transported into the chloroplasts through a protein machine called the TOC complex. When plants lack parts of the TOC complex, their chloroplasts develop abnormally, and their leaves turn yellow.

Photosynthesis can make toxic by-products, so cells need a way to turn it off when they are under stress; for example, by lowering the number of TOC complexes on the chloroplasts. This is achieved by tagging TOC complexes with a molecule called ubiquitin, which will lead to their removal from chloroplasts, slowing photosynthesis down. It is unknown whether another, similar, molecular tag called SUMO aids in this destruction process.

To find out, Watson et al. examined a mutant of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. This mutant had low levels of the TOC complex, turning its leaves pale yellow. A combination of genetic, molecular, and biochemical experiments showed that SUMO molecular tags control the levels of TOC complex on chloroplasts. Increasing the amount of SUMO in the mutant plants made their leaves turn yellower, while interfering with the genes responsible for depositing SUMO tags turned the leaves green. This implies that in plants with less SUMO tags, cells stopped destroying their TOC complexes, allowing the chloroplasts to develop better, and changing the colour of the leaves. The SUMO tagging of TOC complexes shares a lot of genetic similarities with the ubiquitin tag system.

It is possible that SUMO tags may help to control the CHLORAD pathway, which destroys TOC complexes marked with ubiquitin. Understanding this relationship, and how to influence it, could help to improve the performance of crops. The next step is to understand exactly how SUMO tags promote the destruction of the TOC complex.