Unique thylakoid membrane architecture of a unicellular N2-fixing cyanobacterium revealed by electron tomography

Michelle Liberton, Jotham R. Austin, R. Howard Berg, Himadri B. Pakrasi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Cyanobacteria, descendants of the endosymbiont that gave rise to modern-day chloroplasts, are vital contributors to global biological energy conversion processes. A thorough understanding of the physiology of cyanobacteria requires detailed knowledge of these organisms at the level of cellular architecture and organization. In these prokaryotes, the large membrane protein complexes of the photosynthetic and respiratory electron transport chains function in the intracellular thylakoid membranes. Like plants, the architecture of the thylakoid membranes in cyanobacteria has direct impact on cellular bioenergetics, protein transport, and molecular trafficking. However, whole-cell thylakoid organization in cyanobacteria is not well understood. Here we present, by using electron tomography, an in-depth analysis of the architecture of the thylakoid membranes in a unicellular cyanobacterium, Cyanothece sp. ATCC 51142. Based on the results of three-dimensional to mographic reconstructions of near-entire cells, we determined that the thylakoids in Cyanothece 51142 form a dense and complex network that extends throughout the entire cell. This thylakoid membrane network is formed from the branching and splitting of membranes and encloses a single lumenal space. The entire thylakoid network spirals as a peripheral ring of membranes around the cell, an organization that has not previously been described in a cyanobacterium. Within the thylakoid membrane network are areas of quasi-helical arrangement with similarities to the thylakoid membrane system in chloroplasts. This cyanobacterial thylakoid arrangement is an efficient means of packing a large volume of membranes in the cell while optimizing intracellular transport and trafficking.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1656-1666
Number of pages11
JournalPlant Physiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2011


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