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Cooper GM. The Cell: A Molecular Approach. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2000.

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The Cell: A Molecular Approach. 2nd edition.

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Chloroplasts and Other Plastids

Chloroplasts, the organelles responsible for photosynthesis, are in many respects similar to mitochondria. Both chloroplasts and mitochondria function to generate metabolic energy, evolved by endosymbiosis, contain their own genetic systems, and replicate by division. However, chloroplasts are larger and more complex than mitochondria, and they perform several critical tasks in addition to the generation of ATP. Most importantly, chloroplasts are responsible for the photosynthetic conversion of CO2 to carbohydrates. In addition, chloroplasts synthesize amino acids, fatty acids, and the lipid components of their own membranes. The reduction of nitrite (NO2-) to ammonia (NH3), an essential step in the incorporation of nitrogen into organic compounds, also occurs in chloroplasts. Moreover, chloroplasts are only one of several types of related organelles (plastids) that play a variety of roles in plant cells.

The Structure and Function of Chloroplasts

Plant chloroplasts are large organelles (5 to 10 μm long) that, like mitochondria, are bounded by a double membrane called the chloroplast envelope (Figure 10.13). In addition to the inner and outer membranes of the envelope, chloroplasts have a third internal membrane system, called the thylakoid membrane. The thylakoid membrane forms a network of flattened discs called thylakoids, which are frequently arranged in stacks called grana. Because of this three-membrane structure, the internal organization of chloroplasts is more complex than that of mitochondria. In particular, their three membranes divide chloroplasts into three distinct internal compartments: (1) the intermembrane space between the two membranes of the chloroplast envelope; (2) the stroma, which lies inside the envelope but outside the thylakoid membrane; and (3) the thylakoid lumen.

Figure 10.13. Structure of a chloroplast.

Figure 10.13

Structure of a chloroplast. In addition to the inner and outer membranes of the envelope, chloroplasts contain a third internal membrane system: the thylakoid membrane. These membranes divide chloroplasts into three internal compartments. (Electron micrograph (more...)

Despite this greater complexity, the membranes of chloroplasts have clear functional similarities with those of mitochondria—as expected, given the role of both organelles in the chemiosmotic generation of ATP. The outer membrane of the chloroplast envelope, like that of mitochondria, contains porins and is therefore freely permeable to small molecules. In contrast, the inner membrane is impermeable to ions and metabolites, which are therefore able to enter chloroplasts only via specific membrane transporters. These properties of the inner and outer membranes of the chloroplast envelope are similar to the inner and outer membranes of mitochondria: In both cases the inner membrane restricts the passage of molecules between the cytosol and the interior of the organelle. The chloroplast stroma is also equivalent in function to the mitochondrial matrix: It contains the chloroplast genetic system and a variety of metabolic enzymes, including those responsible for the critical conversion of CO2 to carbohydrates during photosynthesis.

The major difference between chloroplasts and mitochondria, in terms of both structure and function, is the thylakoid membrane. This membrane is of central importance in chloroplasts, where it fills the role of the inner mitochondrial membrane in electron transport and the chemiosmotic generation of ATP (Figure 10.14). The inner membrane of the chloroplast envelope (which is not folded into cristae) does not function in photosynthesis. Instead, the chloroplast electron transport system is located in the thylakoid membrane, and protons are pumped across this membrane from the stroma to the thylakoid lumen. The resulting electrochemical gradient then drives ATP synthesis as protons cross back into the stroma. In terms of its role in generation of metabolic energy, the thylakoid membrane of chloroplasts is thus equivalent to the inner membrane of mitochondria.

Figure 10.14. Chemiosmotic generation of ATP in chloroplasts and mitochondria.

Figure 10.14

Chemiosmotic generation of ATP in chloroplasts and mitochondria. In mitochondria, electron transport generates a proton gradient across the inner membrane, which is then used to drive ATP synthesis in the matrix. In chloroplasts, the proton gradient is (more...)

The Chloroplast Genome

Like mitochondria, chloroplasts contain their own genetic system, reflecting their evolutionary origins from photosynthetic bacteria. The genomes of chloroplasts are similar to those of mitochondria in that they consist of circular DNA molecules present in multiple copies per organelle. However, chloroplast genomes are larger and more complex than those of mitochondria, ranging from 120 to 160 kb and containing approximately 120 genes.

The chloroplast genomes of several plants have been completely sequenced, leading to the identification of many of the genes contained in the organelle DNAs. These chloroplast genes encode both RNAs and proteins involved in gene expression, as well as a variety of proteins that function in photosynthesis (Table 10.2). Both the ribosomal and transfer RNAs used for translation of chloroplast mRNAs are encoded by the organelle genome. These include four rRNAs (23S, 16S, 5S, and 4.5S) and 30 tRNA species. In contrast to the smaller number of tRNAs encoded by the mitochondrial genome, the chloroplast tRNAs are sufficient to translate all the mRNA codons according to the universal genetic code. In addition to these RNA components of the translation system, the chloroplast genome encodes about 20 ribosomal proteins, which represent approximately a third of the proteins of chloroplast ribosomes. Some subunits of RNA polymerase are also encoded by chloroplasts, although additional RNA polymerase subunits and other factors needed for chloroplast gene expression are encoded in the nucleus.

Table 10.2. Genes Encoded by Chloroplast DNA.

Table 10.2

Genes Encoded by Chloroplast DNA.

The chloroplast genome also encodes approximately 30 proteins that are involved in photosynthesis, including components of photosystems I and II, of the cytochrome bf complex, and of ATP synthase. In addition, one of the subunits of ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase (rubisco) is encoded by chloroplast DNA. Rubisco is the critical enzyme that catalyzes the addition of CO2 to ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate during the Calvin cycle (see Figure 2.39). Not only is it the major protein component of the chloroplast stroma, but it is also thought to be the single most abundant protein on Earth, so it is noteworthy that one of its subunits is encoded by the chloroplast genome.

Import and Sorting of Chloroplast Proteins

Although chloroplasts encode more of their own proteins than mitochondria, about 90% of chloroplast proteins are still encoded by nuclear genes. As with mitochondria, these proteins are synthesized on cytosolic ribosomes and then imported into chloroplasts as completed polypeptide chains. They must then be sorted to their appropriate location within chloroplasts—an even more complicated task than protein sorting in mitochondria, since chloroplasts contain three separate membranes that divide them into three distinct internal compartments.

Protein import into chloroplasts generally resembles mitochondrial protein import (Figure 10.15). Proteins are targeted for import into chloroplasts by N-terminal sequences of 30 to 100 amino acids, called transit peptides, which direct protein translocation across the two membranes of the chloroplast envelope and are then removed by proteolytic cleavage. The transit peptides are recognized by the translocation complex of the chloroplast outer member (the Toc complex), and proteins are transported through this complex across the membrane. They are then transferred to the translocation complex of the inner membrane (the Tic complex) and transported across the inner membrane to the stroma. As in mitochondria, molecular chaperones on both the cytosolic and stromal sides of the envelope are required for protein import, which requires energy in the form of ATP. In contrast to the presequences of mitochondrial import, however, transit peptides are not positively charged and the translocation of polypeptide chains into chloroplasts does not require an electric potential across the membrane.

Figure 10.15. Protein import into the chloroplast stroma.

Figure 10.15

Protein import into the chloroplast stroma. Proteins are targeted for import into chloroplasts by a transit peptide at their amino terminus. The transit peptide directs polypeptide translocation through the Toc complex in the chloroplast outer membrane (more...)

Proteins incorporated into the thylakoid lumen are transported to their destination in two steps (Figure 10.16). They are first imported into the stroma, as already described, and are then targeted for translocation across the thylakoid membrane by a second hydrophobic signal sequence, which is exposed following cleavage of the transit peptide. The hydrophobic signal sequence directs translocation of the polypeptide across the thylakoid membrane and is finally removed by a second proteolytic cleavage within the lumen.

Figure 10.16. Import of proteins into the thylakoid lumen.

Figure 10.16

Import of proteins into the thylakoid lumen. Proteins are imported into the thylakoid lumen in two steps. The first step is import into the chloroplast stroma, as illustrated in Figure 10.15. Cleavage of the transit peptide then exposes a second hydrophobic (more...)

The pathways of protein sorting to the other four compartments of chloroplasts—the inner and outer membranes, thylakoid membrane, and intermembrane space—are less well established. As with mitochondria, proteins appear to be inserted directly into the outer membrane of the chloroplast envelope. In contrast, proteins destined for either the thylakoid membrane or the inner membrane of the chloroplast envelope are initially targeted for import into the stroma by N-terminal transit peptides. Following cleavage of the transit peptides, these proteins are then targeted for insertion into the appropriate membrane by other sequences, which are not yet well characterized. Finally, neither the sequences that target proteins to the intermembrane space nor the pathways by which they travel to that destination have been identified.

Other Plastids

Chloroplasts are only one, albeit the most prominent, member of a larger family of plant organelles called plastids. All plastids contain the same genome as chloroplasts, but they differ in both structure and function. Chloroplasts are specialized for photosynthesis and are unique in that they contain the internal thylakoid membrane system. Other plastids, which are involved in different aspects of plant cell metabolism, are bounded by the two membranes of the plastid envelope but lack both the thylakoid membranes and other components of the photosynthetic apparatus.

The different types of plastids are frequently classified according to the kinds of pigments they contain. Chloroplasts are so named because they contain chlorophyll. Chromoplasts (Figure 10.17A) lack chlorophyll but contain carotenoids; they are responsible for the yellow, orange, and red colors of some flowers and fruits, although their precise function in cell metabolism is not clear. Leucoplasts are nonpigmented plastids, which store a variety of energy sources in nonphotosynthetic tissues. Amyloplasts (Figure 10.17B) and elaioplasts are examples of leucoplasts that store starch and lipids, respectively.

Figure 10.17. Electron micrographs of chromoplasts and amyloplasts.

Figure 10.17

Electron micrographs of chromoplasts and amyloplasts. (A) Chromoplasts contain lipid droplets in which carote-noids are stored. (B) Amyloplasts contain large starch granules. (A, Biophoto Associates/Photo Researchers, Inc.; B, Dr. Jeremy Burgess/Photo (more...)

All plastids, including chloroplasts, develop from proplastids, small (0.5 to 1 μm in diameter) undifferentiated organelles present in the rapidly dividing cells of plant roots and shoots. Proplastids then develop into the various types of mature plastids according to the needs of differentiated cells. In addition, mature plastids are able to change from one type to another. Chromoplasts develop from chloroplasts, for example, during the ripening of fruit (e.g., tomatoes). During this process, chlorophyll and the thylakoid membranes break down, while new types of carotenoids are synthesized.

An interesting feature of plastids is that their development is controlled both by environmental signals and by intrinsic programs of cell differentiation. In the photosynthetic cells of leaves, for example, proplastids develop into chloroplasts (Figure 10.18). During this process, the thylakoid membrane is formed by vesicles budding from the inner membrane of the plastid envelope and the various components of the photosynthetic apparatus are synthesized and assembled. However, chloroplasts develop only in the presence of light. If plants are kept in the dark, the development of proplastids in leaves is arrested at an intermediate stage (called etioplasts), in which a semicrystalline array of tubular internal membranes has formed but chlorophyll has not been synthesized (Figure 10.19). If dark-grown plants are then exposed to light, the etioplasts continue their development to chloroplasts. It is noteworthy that this dual control of plastid development involves the coordinated expression of genes within both the plastid and nuclear genomes. The mechanisms responsible for such coordinated gene expression are largely unknown, and their elucidation represents a challenging problem in plant molecular biology.

Figure 10.18. Development of chloroplasts.

Figure 10.18

Development of chloroplasts. Chloroplasts develop from proplastids in the photosynthetic cells of leaves. Proplastids contain only the inner and outer envelope membranes; the thylakoid membrane is formed by vesicle budding from the inner membrane during (more...)

Figure 10.19. Electron micrograph of an etioplast.

Figure 10.19

Electron micrograph of an etioplast. (John N. A. Lott/Biological Photo Service.)

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2000, Geoffrey M Cooper.
Bookshelf ID: NBK9905

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