Exploring Delocalised Energy Transport in Bacterial Reaction Centres

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Chemistry


Photosynthetic organisms such as plants, algae and bacteria, harness the energy from sunlight to drive all downstream processes such as synthesis of carbohydrates, which are essential for cell growth, function, and repair. Reaction centres (RCs) play the pivotal role of accepting energy absorbed by 1000s of light absorbing carotenoid and (bacterio)chlorophyll molecules and use it to induce charge separation, generating electrons (and holes). Electrons are then used to form a vital concentration gradient of protons that drive adenosine triphosphate synthesis. The process of initial light capture in light harvesting antenna, rapid energy transfer between (bacterio)chlorophyll molecules and charge separation in RCs is, remarkably, 100% efficient under low light intensities. Despite many prior studies of RCs, several important factors underling the high yield of chemical charge separation have yet to be directly experimentally determined.

RCs of Rhodobacter sphaeroides contain seven tightly packed light absorbing molecules: four bacteriochlorophylls-a, two bacteriopheophytins-a (both bacteriochlorin pigments) and a 15,15'-cis-spheroidene carotenoid moiety. Energy transfer between adjacent RC pigments takes place on ~100 fs timescales (1 fs = one millionth billionth of a second).

The rate of energy transfer, which underpins the yield of eventual charge-separation, is dictated by the electronic structure of RCs, and the extent to which photoexcited molecules share electrons (delocalisation). In the regime of spatially separated molecules, the interaction between chormophores is minimal and electrons remain localised on their respective molecules. However, in RCs the distances between pigments ranges between 5 and 10 Angstroms and through inter-molecular interactions electrons can become delocalised over multiple pigments. To date, no experiment has been able to directly measure the delocalisation of RC excited states.

Ultrafast laser spectroscopies using pulses of light shorter than the dynamical processes involved can be used to take snapshots of the system and infer the route(s) and associated timescales of energy flow through the system. One such emerging technique, two-dimensional electronic-vibrational spectroscopy will be used to investigate the spatial location of excited states in RCs as a function of time, and transform our knowledge of the inter-molecular interactions and of the RC electronic structure.

Carotenoid pigments play a dual role in photosynthesis, acting as both accessory light harvesting pigments and regulatory elements that can protect plants from damage caused by excessive sunlight. In their light harvesting capacity, they can absorb parts of the solar spectrum where (bacterio)chlorophyll absorption is weak. Carotenoids increase the total coverage of the solar spectrum by transferring energy to (bacterio)chlorophyll molecules. The carotenoid to bacteriochlorin energy transfer mechanisms for RCs have not been fully characterised and may involve pathways that have hitherto been ignored. Two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy will be used to follow the energy transfer between carotenoid and different bacteriochlorin pigments, revealing the energy transfer pathways and associated timescales that enhance the light harvesting capability of RCs.

The proposed experiments seek to transform our current description of the electronic structure of Rhodobacter sphaeroides RCs and how energy is transferred between constituent light absorbing molecules, preparing the system for one of nature's most efficient charge-carrier generation events. The study will provide key design principles of inter-molecular couplings in RCs, and unravel the blueprint for the efficient energy transduction. These design principles will be key for engineering bio-inspired molecular solar cell technology or water splitting catalysts.

Planned Impact

The immediate beneficiaries from this grant will primarily be academic research groups exploring the molecular mechanisms of efficient natural light harvesting and those trying to synthesise molecular artificial reaction centres. Quantitative information about several key parameters is required to understand natural reaction centres or synthesise bio-inspired counterparts: these parameters include the precise inter-nuclear distances between chromophores, isolated constituent pigment excitation energies and the inter-pigment electronic coupling constants. The latter factors are difficult to determine independently, and values have only been estimated by a combination of semi-empirical theory and experiments. This coupling dictates the energy transfer between moieties and the degree of delocalisation of excitons over multiple pigments. This study aims to unravel these details with cutting-edge ultrafast laser spectroscopies, which will provide one of the missing design principles required to build a reaction centre from the ground up.

The proposed research will also introduce expertise in advanced ultrafast spectroscopies to the UK and disseminate it through training of highly skilled personnel and collaborative research. The postdoctoral research associate (PDRA) employed by this grant will be trained and will gain expertise in cutting edge spectroscopies at the frontier of biophysics. The PDRA will directly collaborate with a group who grow bacterial reaction centres (Dr Mike Jones in the School of Biochemistry at Bristol). The PDRA will benefit from being part of the Bristol Laser Chemistry, Spectroscopy and Dynamics Group who have a broad range of scientific interests. She/he will also have many opportunities for interactions with researchers in the fields of computational and theoretical chemistry. The collegiate scientific atmosphere in the School of Chemistry will facilitate broad training for a PDRA that will equip her/him with the necessary skills to face the next stages of her/his career.

The longer-term impact of the proposed research will be to use the design principles of nature's reaction centre to engineer efficient and robust molecular based solar cell technologies, where a high yield of charge-separation is key. The findings may also influence solar driven water-splitting catalysts that require a reliable source of electrons to drive water oxidation. The proposed research will contribute to impacts envisaged for the EPSRC research themes in Energy, Physical Sciences and Manufacturing the Future and is aligned with EPSRC Grand Challenge: Understanding the Physics of Life.


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Description The award of the EPSRC grant has been catalytic in the genesis of my research group, allowing me to recruit a post-doctoral research associated (for 1 year) and attract several PhD students to my group. Alongside the award of several laser systems (via non-RCUK funded schemes) I now have an established laboratory which houses high power laser systems critical for my research. We have constructed a spectrometer capable of monitoring energy flow between individual chromophores inside proteins on 10s femtosecond timescales (1 fs = 1 x 10^-15 s). This spectrometer is one of the current premier tools for studying condensed phase dynamics, and only the second of its kind in the UK. Preliminary experiments have been performed on bacterial reaction centres, the key protein of purple bacteria, the site for charge-separation which is critical for down-stream processes such as adenine triphosphate synthesis. Additional experiments have been performed to elucidate the photochemistry of anthocyanin pigments. Anthocyanin molecules are found in the vacuoles of leaves, and are thought to play an important photoprotective role in photosynthesis. Our experiments show that one of the key steps involves proton transfer on timescales shorter than 10 picoseconds.

Beyond these experiments, the PhD student associated with this grant has used ultrafast spectroscopy to investigate the non-radiative relaxation dynamics of a model dinucleotide in solution and the importance of surface functionalisation on carbon nanodots.
Exploitation Route The main beneficiaries of this research will be academic. In terms of bacterial reaction centres, the design principles of light harvesting and charge separation are not fully established, and are important from a fundamental perspective, but also to bio-inspired design of photovoltaic devices.
Sectors Other

URL http://www.taaoliver.com
Description DTA PhD studentship award
Amount £94,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 1794656 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 03/2020
Title 2DIR data for review paper 
Description 2DIR data of methylammonium lead iodide thin films used to illustrate nodal line slope changes for review paper. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact N/A 
URL https://data.bris.ac.uk/data/dataset/1qlc372dvn9in2gtnb7vpxfait
Title Data from study of carbon nanodots 
Description Transient absorption, TEM, SAXS, NMR, linear absorption FTIR and 2D fluorescence data that underpin the paper. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Data contained within the data are freely available to all. 
URL https://data.bris.ac.uk/data/dataset/30s3i070zb0qv2tipisop5a1h4
Title Data from study of dinucleotide 
Description Transient absorption, linear ultraviolet and infrared absorption, time-resolved infrared and NMR data underpinning published paper. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Data underpinning published work. 
URL http://data.bris.ac.uk/data/dataset/30s3i070zb0qv2tipisop5a1h4
Description Collaboration with biochemist Dr Mike R Jones 
Organisation University of Bristol
Department School of Biochemistry Bristol
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have constructed a 2D electronic spectroscopy (2DES) experiment to investigate the dependent energy transfer pathways of bacterial reaction centres. 2DES is one of the premier tools for investigating ultrafast (femtosecond to picosecond) dynamics of condensed phase systems.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Mike Jones (Biochemistry, University of Bristol) is an expert in the growth and purification of bacterial reaction centre samples, and their mutagenesis and characterisation. Dr. Jones agreed to supply a whole plethora of different reaction centre mutants, i.e. removing specific pigments from either branch of the pigment-protein complex for ultrafast spectroscopic studies.
Impact This is a multidisciplinary proposal complicated mutagenesis of purple bacteria with cutting edge ultrafast laser spectroscopy. Thus far Mike Jones has prepared several bacterial reaction centre mutants with and without the native carotenoid moiety, and we have collected preliminary data on these samples at room temperature. This analysis is underway, but will lead to an enhanced understanding of the structure-function relationship of the carotenoid in bacterial reaction centres.
Start Year 2017