Research on how light-harvesting bacteria toggle off and on

The results could have long-range implications for artificial photosynthesis and optogenetics—the use of light to selectively activate biological processes.

Cyanobacteria are water-dwelling microbes capable of absorbing sunlight and converting it into chemical energy through photosynthesis. Long ago, ancient versions of these bacteria were incorporated into plant cells, where they eventually evolved into chloroplasts, the organelles responsible for carrying out photosynthesis in green plants. Today, in seeking to develop artificial photosynthesis to harness the sun’s abundant energy, scientists look to cyanobacteria to better understand the nuts and bolts of how natural photosynthesis works.

Cyanobacterial “off switch”

One topic of interest is how cyanobacteria respond to too much light. If a sunlight-harvesting system becomes overloaded with absorbed solar energy, it most likely will suffer some form of damage. Nature has solved the problem in cyanobacteria through a protective mechanism—an energy-quenching “off switch” in which excess solar energy is safely dissipated as heat.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source at BNL

Illustration: X-ray footprinting provides time-resolved information about where key conformational changes occur. On the left is the overall OCP structure. The two structures on the right highlight local areas with increasing protein packing over time (blue shading) and areas with decreasing protein packing over time (red shading). The changes in accessibility are initiated by the movement of the carotenoid molecule (magenta chain).

Biological light sensor filmed in action

Film shows one of the fastest processes in biology

Using X-ray laser technology, a team led by researchers of the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI has recorded one of the fastest processes in biology. In doing so, they produced a molecular movie that reveals how the light sensor retinal is activated in a protein molecule. Such reactions occur in numerous organisms that use the information or energy content of light – they enable certain bacteria to produce energy through photosynthesis, initiate the process of vision in humans and animals, and regulate adaptations to the circadian rhythm. The movie shows for the first time how a protein efficiently controls the reaction of the embedded light sensor. The images, now published in the journal Science, were captured at the free-electron X-ray laser LCLS at Stanford University in California. Further investigations are planned at SwissFEL, the new free-electron X-ray laser at PSI. Besides the scientists from Switzerland, researchers from Japan, the USA, Germany, Israel, and Sweden took part in this study.

>Read more on the SwissFEL at Paul Scherrer Institute website

Image: Jörg Standfuss at the injector with which protein crystals for the experiments at the Californian X-ray laser LCLS were tested. In the near future, this technology will also be available at PSI’s X-ray laser SwissFEL, for scientists from all over the world.
Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir DzaAmbegovic