Molecular rearrangements of thylakoids after heavy metal poisoning, as seen by Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) and electron spin resonance (ESR) spectroscopy

Balázs Szalontai, László I. Horváth, Mónika Debreczeny, Magdolna Droppa, Gábor Horváth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

39 Citations (Scopus)


The specific effects exerted by different heavy metals on both the function and the structure of the photosynthetic apparatus were addressed. The functional analysis performed via the fluorescence induction kinetics revealed that the applied toxic heavy metals can be classified into two groups: Cd and Ni had no significant effect on the photosynthetic electron transport, while Cu, Pb and Zn strongly inhibited the Photosystem II (PS II) activity, as evidenced by the dramatic decreases in both the variable (F(v)) and the maximal (F(m)) fluorescence. The structural effects of the heavy metal ions on the thylakoid membranes were considered in three relations: (1) lipids, (2) proteins - studied by Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, and (3) lipid-protein interactions - investigated by electron spin resonance (ESR) spectroscopy using spin-labeled probe molecules. The studied heavy metal ions had only a non-specific rigidifying effect on the thylakoid lipids. As regards proteins, Cd and Ni had no effect on the course of their heat denaturation. The heat denaturation of the proteins was accompanied by a decrease in the α-helix content (1656 cm-1), a parallel increase in the disordered segments (1651 cm-1), a decrease in the intramolecular β-sheet (1636 cm-1) content and the concomitant appearance of an intermolecular β-structure (1621 cm-1). In contrast with Cd and Ni, Cu and Zn blocked the appearance of the intermolecular β-structure. Pb represented an intermediate case. It seems that these heavy metals alter the native membrane structure in such a way that heat-induced aggregation becomes more limited. The ESR data revealed that certain heavy metals also affect the lipid-protein interactions. While Cd and Ni had hardly any effect on the solvation fraction of thylakoid lipids, Cu, Pb and Zn increased the fraction of lipids solvating the proteins. On the basis of the FTIR and ESR data, it seems that Cu, Pb, and Zn increase the surfaces available for lipid-protein interactions by dissociating membrane protein complexes, and that these 'lipidated' proteins have a smaller chance to aggregate upon heat denaturation. The data presented here indicate that the damaging effects of poisonous heavy metals are element-specific, Cu, Pb and Zn interact directly with the thylakoid membranes of the photosynthetic apparatus, while Cd and Ni interfere rather with other metabolic processes of plants.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)241-252
Number of pages12
JournalPhotosynthesis research
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 1999



  • ESR
  • Electron transport
  • FTIR
  • Lipid
  • Membrane structure
  • Photosynthesis
  • Protein

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Plant Science
  • Cell Biology

Cite this