Differential effects of nitrogen limitation on photosynthetic efficiency of photosystems I and II in microalgae

John A. Berges, Denis O. Charlebois, David C. Mauzerall, Paul G. Falkowski

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193 Scopus citations


The effects of nitrogen starvation on photosynthetic efficiency were examined in three unicellular algae by measuring changes in the quantum yield of fluorescence with a pump-and-probe method and thermal efficiency (i.e. the percentage of trapped energy stored photochemically) with a pulsed photoacoustic method together with the inhibitor 3-(3,4-dichlorophenyl)-1,1-dimethylurea to distinguish photosystems I and II (PSI and PSII). Measured at 620 nm, maximum thermal efficiency for both photosystems was 32% for the diatom Thalassiosira weissflogii (PSII:PSI ratio of 2:1), 39% for the green alga Dunaliella tertiolecta (PSII:PSI ratio of 1:1), and 29% for the cyanobacterium Synechococcus sp. PCC 7002 (PSII:PSI ratio of 1:2). Nitrogen starvation decreased total thermal efficiency by 56% for T. weissflogii and by 26% for D. tertiolecta but caused no change in Synechococcus. Decreases in the number of active PSII reaction centers (inferred from changes in variable fluorescence) were larger: 86% (T. weissflogii), 65% (D. tertiolecta), and 65% (Synechococcus). The selective inactivation of PSII under nitrogen starvation was confirmed by independent measurements of active PSII using oxygen flash yields and active PSI using P700 reduction. Relatively high thermal efficiencies were measured in all three species in the presence of the PSII inhibitor 3-(3,4-dichlorophenyl)-1,1-dimethylurea, suggesting the potential for significant cyclic electron flow around PSI. Fluorescence or photoacoustic data agreed well; in T. weissflogii, the functional cross-sectional area of PSII at 620 nm was estimated to be the same using both methods (approximately 1.8 × 102 Å2). The effects of nitrogen starvation occur mainly in PSII and are well represented by variable fluorescence measurements.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)689-696
Number of pages8
JournalPlant physiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1996

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physiology
  • Genetics
  • Plant Science

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