News Release

Unraveling the structural dynamics of Photosystem II with femtosecond X-ray crystallography

Researchers reveal Photosystem II structural dynamics, elucidating electron transfer and water-splitting mechanisms

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Okayama University

Dynamic structures of the oxygen-evolving center of Photosystem II following two flashes excitation.


Researchers from Okayama University have discovered rapid structural changes in the oxygen-evolving center of Photosystem II (PSII) upon light excitation, revealing insights into the mechanism of water oxidation. These findings provide crucial information for understanding the dynamics of PSII during photosynthesis.

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Credit: Dr. Michihiro Suga from Okayama University

Understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of photosynthesis can enable significant progress in the fields of biotechnology and renewable energy. Photosystem II (PSII), a protein complex, plays a central role in this process by catalyzing the oxidation of water and producing dioxygen using sunlight, a fundamental step in oxygenic photosynthesis. Despite extensive research, the structural dynamics of PSII during the water-splitting reaction, especially at the atomic level and on short timescales, remain largely unexplored.

Previous research has provided valuable insights into the structural changes occurring in PSII during the water-splitting reaction, focusing on microsecond to millisecond timescales. However, there has been a lack of high-resolution structural information at shorter timescales, particularly during the transitions between different states of the oxygen-evolving complex (OEC) induced by light excitation, which is essential for understanding the mechanism of water oxidation and oxygen evolution. To address this research gap, Professor Michihiro Suga and Professor Jian-Ren Shen from the Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Science, Graduate School of Environmental, Life, Natural Science and Technology, Okayama University in Japan published a study in Nature on 31 January 2024.

The researchers utilized pump-probe serial femtosecond X-ray crystallography (TR-SFX), a technique which is known to capture ultrafast structural changes in biological macromolecules with remarkable spatial and temporal precision. Following established protocols, PSII microcrystals were meticulously prepared and subjected to one or two laser-flashes light excitation, followed by illumination with femtosecond X-ray pulses generated by an X-ray free electron laser (XFEL). "The process of generating microcrystals for Photosystem II was time-consuming, spanning nearly five years until the findings were compiled and published," remarked Professor Michihiro Suga, emphasizing the extensive effort invested in the project. By exposing the crystals to laser flashes and capturing X-ray diffraction patterns at various time delays, the researchers could extensively track minor structural alterations in PSII, ranging from nanoseconds to milliseconds post-flash illumination.

The findings revealed the intricate structural dynamics of PSII during crucial transitions from the S1 to S2 and S2 to S3 states to understand pivotal events such as electron transfer, proton release, and substrate water delivery. After exposing the crystals to laser flashes, rapid structural alterations in the YZ tyrosine residue were observed, suggesting the occurrence of fast electron and proton transfer processes. A water molecule near Glu189 of the D1 subunit was found immediately following two flashes, which subsequently transferred to a position named O6 near O5 as previously found, providing valuable insights into the origin of the oxygen atom incorporated during the water-splitting reaction. The investigation also clarified the concerted movements of water molecules within specific channels, elucidating their crucial role in facilitating substrate water delivery and proton release. These observations shed light on the intricate interplay between the protein scaffold and water molecules, highlighting their synergistic contribution to the efficiency of the PSII's catalytic cycle.

The findings from our research have significant implications for various fields, particularly in the design of catalysts for artificial photosynthesis. By elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying water oxidation in PSII, we can inspire the development of synthetic catalysts capable of efficiently harnessing solar energy through artificial photosynthesis,” Professor Jian-Ren Shen explains while discussing the real-life applications of this research. By understanding the structural dynamics of PSII, we can also inform strategies for optimizing natural photosynthetic processes in crops to enhance agricultural productivity and mitigate the effects of climate change.

These findings not only deepen our understanding of the fundamental biological processes but also hold tremendous promise for addressing pressing global challenges related to energy sustainability and environmental conservation. Let’s hope more research paves the way to green innovation!

About Okayama University, Japan

As one of the leading universities in Japan, Okayama University aims to create and establish a new paradigm for the sustainable development of the world. Okayama University offers a wide range of academic fields, which become the basis of the integrated graduate schools. This not only allows us to conduct the most advanced and up-to-date research but also provides an enriching educational experience.



About Professor Michihiro Suga from Okayama University, Japan

Professor Michi Suga is a distinguished structural biologist with extensive academic qualifications and experience. Holding a Ph.D. in Science from Osaka University, he has held various positions, including Research Associate at Okayama University and Assistant Professor at Okayama University's Graduate School of Natural Science and Technology. Currently serving as a Professor at the Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Science at Okayama University, his research focuses on elucidating the mechanisms of water oxidation, light harvesting, and energy transfer in photosynthetic membrane proteins, as well as mineral transport mechanisms in channels and transporters. With numerous peer-reviewed publications and numerous awards, including The Young Scientists’ Prize of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology-Japan, his contributions significantly advance the field of structural biology and structural life science.


About Professor Jian-Ren Shen from Okayama University, Japan

Professor Jian-Ren Shen is a highly accomplished researcher with a Doctor of Science degree from The University of Tokyo. He currently serves as a Professor and Director at the Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Science at Okayama University, Japan. With extensive experience in crystal structure analysis, Photosystem II, membrane proteins, and photosynthesis, Professor Shen has made significant contributions to the field of biophysics and structural biochemistry. He has published over 260 peer-reviewed papers, including those in Nature and Science journals, and authored books on photosynthesis, earning prestigious awards such as the Gregori Aminoff Prize and the Highly Cited Researchers recognition. Professor Shen's research elucidates the molecular mechanisms underlying photosynthesis, offering insights into artificial photosynthesis and sustainable energy solutions.

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