Exploring inside a chloroplast in 3D

Technological advancements reveal structures within algal chloroplasts in a close-to-living condition.

Many organisms can harvest light to produce their own energy through a process called photosynthesis. In plant and algal cells, photosynthesis takes place within the chloroplasts, which are compartments that contain stacks of structures called thylakoids.

Inside the thylakoids, proteins absorb energy from light and convert it into biochemical energy that can be used by the cell. This energy then powers a series of reactions that result in carbon dioxide being incorporated into energy-rich sugars. The enzyme RuBisCO is essential for this process, and is believed to be the most abundant protein on Earth. In land plants, RuBisCO is found throughout the chloroplast, but in algae it is limited to a specialized area called the pyrenoid.

Much of our current knowledge of chloroplast structure comes from transmission electron microscopy (TEM) images. However, the traditional methods used to prepare cells for TEM can damage their internal structures. Also, previous studies have focused primarily on the chloroplasts of land plants, even though aquatic organisms — including the alga Chlamydomonas — account for over 50% of photosynthesis on the planet.

Benjamin Engel, Miroslava Schaffer and colleagues now provide the first three-dimensional structures of Chlamydomonas chloroplasts in their natural state. They used several recently-developed techniques to study cells that were preserved in a close-to-living condition. The cells were rapidly frozen, thinned with a technique called cryo-focused ion beam milling, and then imaged by a type of TEM called cryo-electron tomography.

The three-dimensional images provide many insights into the Chlamydomonas chloroplast, including evidence that lipids and proteins move between the membrane that surrounds the chloroplast — called the chloroplast envelope — and the tips of the thylakoids. These images show how thylakoids may be built by the transport of molecules from the chloroplast envelope. In addition, the images reveal the detailed structures of the tubes that connect the thylakoids to the pyrenoid, which could explain how the two stages of photosynthesis (light harvesting and the conversion of carbon dioxide) can be coordinated even though they occur at different places within the chloroplast.

Engel, Schaffer and colleagues also observed that RuBisCO enzymes are arranged in a hexagonal pattern inside the pyrenoid, but are spaced too far apart to make direct contact with each other. To understand how the pyrenoid is assembled, a future goal will be to determine what causes RuBisCO to be arranged in this way.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife Digest is based: “Native architecture of the Chlamydomonas chloroplast revealed by in situ cryo-electron tomography” (January 13, 2015).
Read a commentary on this research paper: “Photosynthesis: The internal plumbing of algal chloroplast”.

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The main text on this page was reused (with modification) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The original “eLife digest” can be found in the linked eLife research paper.