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Microbiol Rev. Sep 1993; 57(3): 725–749.
PMCID: PMC372933

The phycobilisome, a light-harvesting complex responsive to environmental conditions.


Photosynthetic organisms can acclimate to their environment by changing many cellular processes, including the biosynthesis of the photosynthetic apparatus. In this article we discuss the phycobilisome, the light-harvesting apparatus of cyanobacteria and red algae. Unlike most light-harvesting antenna complexes, the phycobilisome is not an integral membrane complex but is attached to the surface of the photosynthetic membranes. It is composed of both the pigmented phycobiliproteins and the nonpigmented linker polypeptides; the former are important for absorbing light energy, while the latter are important for stability and assembly of the complex. The composition of the phycobilisome is very sensitive to a number of different environmental factors. Some of the filamentous cyanobacteria can alter the composition of the phycobilisome in response to the prevalent wavelengths of light in the environment. This process, called complementary chromatic adaptation, allows these organisms to efficiently utilize available light energy to drive photosynthetic electron transport and CO2 fixation. Under conditions of macronutrient limitation, many cyanobacteria degrade their phycobilisomes in a rapid and orderly fashion. Since the phycobilisome is an abundant component of the cell, its degradation may provide a substantial amount of nitrogen to nitrogen-limited cells. Furthermore, degradation of the phycobilisome during nutrient-limited growth may prevent photodamage that would occur if the cells were to absorb light under conditions of metabolic arrest. The interplay of various environmental parameters in determining the number of phycobilisomes and their structural characteristics and the ways in which these parameters control phycobilisome biosynthesis are fertile areas for investigation.

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