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Biophys J. 2014 May 6;106(9):1882-9. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2014.03.031.

Oxygen concentration inside a functioning photosynthetic cell.

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Department of Physics, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.
Department of Physics, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. Electronic address:


The excess oxygen concentration in the photosynthetic membranes of functioning oxygenic photosynthetic cells was estimated using classical diffusion theory combined with experimental data on oxygen production rates of cyanobacterial cells. The excess oxygen concentration within the plesiomorphic cyanobacterium Gloeobactor violaceus is only 0.025 μM, or four orders of magnitude lower than the oxygen concentration in air-saturated water. Such a low concentration suggests that the first oxygenic photosynthetic bacteria in solitary form could have evolved ∼2.8 billion years ago without special mechanisms to protect them against reactive oxygen species. These mechanisms instead could have been developed during the following ∼500 million years while the oxygen level in the Earth's atmosphere was slowly rising. Excess oxygen concentrations within individual cells of the apomorphic cyanobacteria Synechocystis and Synechococcus are 0.064 and 0.25 μM, respectively. These numbers suggest that intramembrane and intracellular proteins in isolated oxygenic photosynthetic cells are not subjected to excessively high oxygen levels. The situation is different for closely packed colonies of photosynthetic cells. Calculations show that the excess concentration within colonies that are ∼40 μm or larger in diameter can be comparable to the oxygen concentration in air-saturated water, suggesting that species forming colonies require protection against reactive oxygen species even in the absence of oxygen in the surrounding atmosphere.

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