Closing the ring

Pigments called carotenoids regulate photosynthesis in a bacterium by altering the architecture of a ring structure in the machinery that harvests energy from the sun.

During photosynthesis, carotenoid pigments (dark yellow) and two groups of regulatory proteins (pink and yellow cylinders) help quinone (dark blue) diffuse out of the reaction center-light harvesting (RC-LH) complex (grey) of the bacterial species Roseiflexus castenholzii. Image credit: Jiyu Xin and Xiaoling Xu, protein structures from EMD-34838 and PDB 8HJU (CC BY 4.0)

Photosynthesis is a biological process that converts energy from sunlight into a form of chemical energy that supports almost all life on Earth. Over the course of evolution, photosynthesis has gone from being only performed by bacteria to appearing in algae and green plants. While this has given rise to a range of different machineries for photosynthesis, the process always begins the same way: with a structure called the reaction center-light harvesting (RC-LH) complex.

Two pigments in the light-harvesting (LH) region – known as chlorophyll and carotenoids – absorb light energy and transfer it to another part of the complex known as the quinone-type reaction center (RC). This results in the release of electrons that interact with a molecule called quinone converting it to hydroquinone. The electron-bound hydroquinone then shuttles to other locations in the cell where it initiates further steps that ultimately synthesize forms of chemical energy that can power essential cellular processes.

In photosynthetic bacteria, hydroquinone must first pass through a ring structure in the light harvesting region in order to leave the reaction center. Previous studies suggest that carotenoids influence the architecture of this ring, but it remains unclear how this may affect the ability of hydroquinone to move out of the RC-LH complex.

To investigate, Xin, Shi, Zhang et al. used a technique called cryo-electron microscopy to study the three-dimensional structure of RC-LH complexes in one of the first bacterial species to employ photosynthesis, Roseiflexus castenholzii. The experiments found that fully assembled complexes bind two groups of carotenoids: one nestled in the interior of the LH ring and the other on the exterior.

The exterior carotenoids work together with bacteriochlorophyll molecules to form a closed ring that blocks hydroquinone from leaving the RC-LH complex. To allow hydroquinone to leave, two groups of regulatory proteins, including a cytochrome and subunit X, then disrupt the structure of the ring to ‘open’ it up.

These findings broaden our knowledge of the molecules involved in photosynthesis. A better understanding of this process may aid the development of solar panels and other devices that use RC-LH complexes rather than silicon or other inorganic materials to convert energy from sunlight into electricity.