Nanophotonics of higher-plant photosynthetic membranes

A. Capretti*, A. K. Ringsmuth, J. F. van Velzen, A. Rosnik, R. Croce, T. Gregorkiewicz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The thylakoid membrane inside chloroplasts hosts the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis. Its embedded protein complexes are responsible for light harvesting, excitation energy transfer, charge separation, and transport. In higher plants, when the illumination conditions vary, the membrane adapts its composition and nanoscale morphology, which is characterized by appressed and non-appressed regions known as grana and stroma lamellae, respectively. Here we investigate the nanophotonic regime of light propagation in chloroplasts of higher plants and identify novel mechanisms in the optical response of the thylakoid membrane. Our results indicate that the relative contributions of light scattering and absorption to the overall optical response of grana strongly depend on the concentration of the light-harvesting complexes. For the pigment concentrations typically found in chloroplasts, the two mechanisms have comparable strengths, and their relative value can be tuned by variations in the protein composition or in the granal diameter. Furthermore, we find that collective modes in ensembles of grana significantly increase light absorption at selected wavelengths, even in the presence of moderate biological disorder. Small variations in the granal separation or a large disorder can dismantle this collective response. We propose that chloroplasts use this mechanism as a strategy against dangerously high illumination conditions, triggering a transition to low-absorbing states. We conclude that the morphological separation of the thylakoid membrane in higher plants supports strong nanophotonic effects, which may be used by chloroplasts to regulate light absorption. This adaptive self-organization capability is of interest as a model for novel bioinspired optical materials for artificial photosynthesis, imaging, and sensing.

Original languageEnglish
Article number5
JournalLight: Science and Applications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019


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