Membrane organization of photosystem I complexes in the most abundant phototroph on Earth

C. MacGregor-Chatwin, P. J. Jackson, M. Sener, J. W. Chidgey, A. Hitchcock, P. Qian, G. E. Mayneord, M. P. Johnson, Z. Luthey-Schulten, M. J. Dickman, D. J. Scanlan, C. N. Hunter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Prochlorococcus is a major contributor to primary production, and globally the most abundant photosynthetic genus of picocyanobacteria because it can adapt to highly stratified low-nutrient conditions that are characteristic of the surface ocean. Here, we examine the structural adaptations of the photosynthetic thylakoid membrane that enable different Prochlorococcus ecotypes to occupy high-light, low-light and nutrient-poor ecological niches. We used atomic force microscopy to image the different photosystem I (PSI) membrane architectures of the MED4 (high-light) Prochlorococcus ecotype grown under high-light and low-light conditions in addition to the MIT9313 (low-light) and SS120 (low-light) Prochlorococcus ecotypes grown under low-light conditions. Mass spectrometry quantified the relative abundance of PSI, photosystem II (PSII) and cytochrome b6f complexes and the various Pcb proteins in the thylakoid membrane. Atomic force microscopy topographs and structural modelling revealed a series of specialized PSI configurations, each adapted to the environmental niche occupied by a particular ecotype. MED4 PSI domains were loosely packed in the thylakoid membrane, whereas PSI in the low-light MIT9313 is organized into a tightly packed pseudo-hexagonal lattice that maximizes harvesting and trapping of light. There are approximately equal levels of PSI and PSII in MED4 and MIT9313, but nearly twofold more PSII than PSI in SS120, which also has a lower content of cytochrome b6f complexes. SS120 has a different tactic to cope with low-light levels, and SS120 thylakoids contained hundreds of closely packed Pcb–PSI supercomplexes that economize on the extra iron and nitrogen required to assemble PSI-only domains. Thus, the abundance and widespread distribution of Prochlorococcus reflect the strategies that various ecotypes employ for adapting to limitations in light and nutrient levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)879-889
Number of pages11
JournalNature plants
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science

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