Evolution under the sun: optimizing light harvesting in photosynthesis

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The emergence and evolution of life on our planet was possible because the sun provides energy to our biosphere. Indeed, all life forms need energy for existence and proliferation in space and time. Light-energy conversion takes place in photosynthetic organisms that evolve in various environments featuring an impressive range of light intensities that span several orders of magnitude. This property is achieved by the evolution of mechanisms of efficient energy capture that involved development of antenna pigments and pigment–protein complexes as well as the emergence of various strategies on the organismal, cellular, and molecular levels to counteract the detrimental effects of high light intensity on the delicate photosynthetic apparatus. Darwin was one of the first to describe the behaviour of plants towards light. He noticed that some plants try to avoid full daylight and called this reaction paraheliotropism. However, it was only in the second half of the 20th century, when scientists began to discover the structure and molecular mechanisms of the photosynthetic machinery, that the reasons for paraheliotropisms became clear. This review explains the need for the evolution of light adaptations using the example of higher plants. The review focuses on short-term adaptation mechanisms that occur on the minute scale, showing that these processes are fast enough to track rapid fluctuations in light intensity and that they evolved to be effective, allowing for the expansion of plant habitats and promoting diversification and survival. Also introduced are the most recent developments in methods that enable quantification of the light intensities that can be tolerated by plants.

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