Phytochromes: An atomic perspective on photoactivation and signaling

E. Sethe Burgie, Richard D. Vierstra

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

127 Scopus citations


The superfamily of phytochrome (Phy) photoreceptors regulates a wide array of light responses in plants and microorganisms through their unique ability to reversibly switch between stable dark-adapted and photoactivated end states. Whereas the downstream signaling cascades and biological consequences have been described, the initial events that underpin photochemistry of the coupled bilin chromophore and the ensuing conformational changes needed to propagate the light signal are only now being understood. Especially informative has been the rapidly expanding collection of 3D models developed by x-ray crystallographic, NMR, and single-particle electron microscopic methods from a remarkably diverse array of bacterial Phys. These structures have revealed how the modular architecture of these dimeric photoreceptors engages the buried chromophore through distinctive knot, hairpin, and helical spine features. When collectively viewed, these 3D structures reveal complex structural alterations whereby photoisomerization of the bilin drives nanometerscale movements within the Phy dimer through bilin sliding, hairpin reconfiguration, and spine deformation that ultimately impinge upon the paired signal output domains. When integrated with the recently described structure of the photosensory module from Arabidopsis thaliana PhyB, new opportunities emerge for the rational redesign of plant Phys with novel photochemistries and signaling properties potentially beneficial to agriculture and their exploitation as optogenetic reagents.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)568-4583
Number of pages4016
JournalPlant Cell
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2014


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