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We present a unifying mechanism for photoinhibition based on current obsevations from in vivo studies rather than from in vitro studies with isolated thylakoids or PS II membranes. In vitro studies have limited relevance for in vivo photoinhibition because very high light is used with photon exposures rarely encountered in nature, and most of the multiple, interacting, protective strategies of PS II regulation in living cells are not functional. It is now established that the photoinactivation of Photosystem II in vivo is a probability and light-dosage event which depends on the photons absorbed and not the irradiance per se. As the reciprocity law is obeyed and target theory analysis strongly suggests that only one photon is required, we propose that a single dominant molecular mechanism occurs in vivo with one photon inactivating PS II under limiting, saturating or sustained high light. Two mechanisms have been proposed for photoinhibition under high light, acceptor-side and donor-side photoinhibition [see Aro et al. (1994) Biochim Biophys Acta 1143: 113–134], and another mechanism for very low light, the low-light syndrome [Keren et al. (1995) J Biol Chem 270: 806–814]. Based on the exciton-radical pair equilibrium model of exciton dynamics, we propose a unifying mechanism for the photoinactivation of PS II in vivo under steady-state photosynthesis that depends on the generation and maintenance of increased concentrations of the primary radical pair, P680+Pheo-, and the different ways charge recombination is regulated under varying environmental conditions [Anderson et al. (1997) Physiol Plant 100: 214–223]. We suggest that the primary cause of damage to D1 protein is P680+, rather than singlet O2, formed from triplet P680, or other reactive oxygen species.