To prevent photodamage by excess light, plants use different proteins to sense pH changes and to dissipate excited energy states. In green microalgae, however, the LhcSR3 gene product is able to perform both pH sensing and energy quenching functions.
In photosynthetic organisms, feedback dissipation of excess absorbed light energy balances harvesting of light with metabolic energy consumption. This mechanism prevents photodamage caused by reactive oxygen species produced by the reaction of chlorophyll (Chl) triplet states with O2. Plants have been found to perform the heat dissipation in specific proteins, binding Chls and carotenoids (Cars), that belong to the Lhc family, while triggering of the process is performed by the PsbS subunit, needed for lumenal pH detection. PsbS is not found in algae, suggesting important differences in energy-dependent quenching (qE) machinery. Consistent with this suggestion, a different Lhc-like gene product, called LhcSR3 (formerly known as LI818) has been found to be essential for qE in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. In this work, we report the production of two recombinant LhcSR isoforms from C. reinhardtii and their biochemical and spectroscopic characterization. We found the following: (i) LhcSR isoforms are Chl a/b– and xanthophyll-binding proteins, contrary to higher plant PsbS; (ii) the LhcSR3 isoform, accumulating in high light, is a strong quencher of Chl excited states, exhibiting a very fast fluorescence decay, with lifetimes below 100 ps, capable of dissipating excitation energy from neighbor antenna proteins; (iii) the LhcSR3 isoform is highly active in the transient formation of Car radical cation, a species proposed to act as a quencher in the heat dissipation process. Remarkably, the radical cation signal is detected at wavelengths corresponding to the Car lutein, rather than to zeaxanthin, implying that the latter, predominant in plants, is not essential; (iv) LhcSR3 is responsive to low pH, the trigger of non-photochemical quenching, since it binds the non-photochemical quenching inhibitor dicyclohexylcarbodiimide, and increases its energy dissipation properties upon acidification. This is the first report of an isolated Lhc protein constitutively active in energy dissipation in its purified form, opening the way to detailed molecular analysis. Owing to its protonatable residues and constitutive excitation energy dissipation, this protein appears to merge both pH-sensing and energy-quenching functions, accomplished respectively by PsbS and monomeric Lhcb proteins in plants.
Reactive oxygen species are formed during photosynthesis, particularly when electron transport is saturated in high light. The process of non-photochemical quenching (NPQ) helps protect plants against excess light by dissipating the excited states of chlorophyll into heat. By doing so, it prevents the formation of triplet excites that otherwise would react with molecular oxygen to form singlet oxygen, a damaging reactive oxygen species. In plants, NPQ is triggered by the PsbS protein, which senses pH changes caused by excess light and consequently triggers energy-quenching functions in other proteins. The green microalga C. reinhardtii lacks the PsbS proteins, and NPQ depends on the LhcSR3 protein. In this study, we show that, unlike PsbS, LhcSR3 not only binds pigments but is also a strong quencher for chlorophyll excited states. LhcSR3 carries protonatable residues that enable it to sense pH change. Its quenching activity is further enhanced by low pH, suggesting that this algal protein merges the functions of pH sensor and of excited state quencher into a single gene product.