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Seeing photosynthesis at the nanoscale: mapping the properties of light-harvesting membranes by video-speed atomic force and fluorescence microscopy

   Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences

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  Dr Peter Adams, Dr G Heath, Prof stephen Evans  Applications accepted all year round  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Understanding photosynthesis could provide valuable clues for future solar technology and help our understanding of food crops. Photons of sunlight are absorbed by biomembranes found within chloroplasts, where large numbers of Light-Harvesting Complex (LHC) proteins act as a satellite dish for channelling energy to Photosystem (PS) proteins. The LHC and PS proteins contain chlorophyll and carotenoid pigments which act as the light-absorbing, energy-transferring cofactors. Much is known about the structure and function of main proteins within this system, however, we need a better understanding of the structural dynamics of each protein and the energy transfers processes taking place across the membrane system. We can map the protein structure and arrangement to nanoscale resolution using a technique called Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM). Recent developments in AFM allow video-speed imaging and measurements of the protein dynamics at the millisecond to microsecond timescale. Fluorescence microscopy (FM) can be used to locate these pigment-protein complexes and fluorescence spectroscopy can quantify the energy transfer processes which occur between pigments.

In this project, you will quantify the nanoscale structural dynamics and energy transfer processes of these proteins using high speed AFM and fluorescence techniques. Firstly, you will study how the so-called supercomplexes of PS/LHC proteins can assemble and disassemble in real time with AFM and FM imaging. You will systematically assess the effect of membrane composition and the effect of temperature. This will reveal the interaction strength and remodelling capabilities of these critically important Photosystem clusters. Secondly, you will quantify the flexibility and rearrangement of single LHC proteins with a newly developed ultra-fast height spectroscopy mode of AFM. Here, you will assess the effect of pH, which is thought to trigger changes to these proteins. Finally, you will quantify energy transfer processes of different configurations of proteins using advanced fluorescence spectroscopy. Characterizing the structural arrangement and biophysical properties of these membrane proteins will greatly advance our understanding photosynthesis.

Funding Notes

A highly competitive School of Physics & Astronomy Studentship consisting of the award of fees at the UK fee rate of £4,600 with a maintenance grant of £16,062 for session 2022/23 for 3.5 years. This opportunity is open to UK applicants only.  All candidates will be placed into the School of Physics & Astronomy Studentship Competition and selection is based on academic merit.

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