A complex spot the difference

The structures of two of the protein complexes involved in plant respiration have been examined in detail for the first time.

Mung bean sprouts grown in the dark that provide the raw materials to determine the structure of plant respiratory complexes. Image credit: Kaitlyn Abe and Maria Guadalupe Zaragoza (CC BY 4.0)

Most living things including plants and animals use respiration to release energy from food. Respiration requires the activity of five large protein complexes typically called complex I, II, III, IV and V. Sometimes these complexes combine to form supercomplexes. The complexes are similar across plants, animals and other living things, but there are also many differences.

Detailed structures of the respiratory complexes have been determined for many species of animals, fungi and bacteria, highlighting similarities and differences between organisms, and providing clues as to how respiration works. Yet, there is still a lot to learn about these complexes in plants.

To bridge this gap, Maldonado et al. used a technique called cryo electron microscopy to study the structure of complexes III and IV and the supercomplex they form in the mung bean. This is the first study of the detailed structure of these two complexes in plants. The results showed many similarities to other species, as well as several features that are specific to plants. The way the two complexes interact to form a supercomplex is different than in other species, as are several other, smaller, structural features. Further examination of complex III revealed that it is flexible and that movements are coordinated across the length of the complex. Maldonado et al. speculate that this may allow it to coordinate its role in respiration with its other cellular roles.

Understanding how plant respiratory complexes work could lead to improvements in crop yields or, since respiration is required for survival, result in the development of herbicides that block respiration in plants more effectively and specifically. Further researching the structure of the plant respiratory complexes and supercomplexes could also shed light on how plants adapt to different environments, including how they change to survive global warming.