In response to proteotoxic stress, chloroplasts communicate with the nuclear gene expression system through a chloroplast unfolded protein response (cpUPR). We isolated Chlamydomonas reinhardtii mutants that disrupt cpUPR signaling and identified a gene encoding a previously uncharacterized cytoplasmic protein kinase, termed Mars1—for mutant affected in chloroplast-to-nucleus retrograde signaling—as the first known component in cpUPR signal transmission. Lack of cpUPR induction in MARS1 mutant cells impaired their ability to cope with chloroplast stress, including exposure to excessive light. Conversely, transgenic activation of cpUPR signaling conferred an advantage to cells undergoing photooxidative stress. Our results indicate that the cpUPR mitigates chloroplast photodamage and that manipulation of this pathway is a potential avenue for engineering photosynthetic organisms with increased tolerance to chloroplast stress.
Kessler F, Longoni P. How chloroplasts protect themselves from unfolded proteins. eLife 8:e51430, 2019
Abstract – A genetic screen has identified the first signaling component of the unfolded protein response in chloroplasts.
Life on Earth crucially depends on photosynthesis, the process by which energy stored in sunlight is harnessed to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and oxygen. In plants and algae, photosynthesis occurs in specialized cellular compartments called chloroplasts. Inside chloroplasts, complex molecular machines absorb light and channel its energy into the appropriate chemical reactions. These machines are composed of proteins that need to be assembled and maintained. However, proteins can become damaged, and when this occurs, they must be recognized, removed, and replaced.
When exposed to bright light, the photosynthetic machinery is pushed into overdrive and protein damage is accelerated. In response, the chloroplast sends an alarm signal to activate a protective system called the “chloroplast unfolded protein response”, or cpUPR for short. The cpUPR leads to the production of specialized proteins that help protect and repair the chloroplast.
It was not known how plants and algae evaluate the level of damaged proteins in the chloroplast, or which signals trigger the cpUPR. To address these questions, Perlaza et al. designed a method to identify the molecular components of the alarm signal. These experiments used specially engineered cells from the algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii that fluoresced when the cpUPR was activated. Perlaza et al. mutagenized these cells – that is, damaged the cells’ DNA to cause random changes in the genetic code. If a mutagenized cell no longer fluoresced in response to protein damage, it indicated that communication between protein damage and the cpUPR had been broken. In other words, the mutation had damaged a piece of DNA that encoded a protein critical for activating the cpUPR.
These experiments identified one protein – which Perlaza et al. named Mars1 – as a crucial molecular player that is required to trigger the cpUPR. Algal cells with defective Mars1 were more vulnerable to chloroplast damage, including that caused by excessive light.
These discoveries in algae will serve as a foundation for understanding the mechanism and significance of the cpUPR in land plants. Perlaza et al. also found that mild artificial activation of the cpUPR could preemptively guard cells against damaged chloroplast proteins. This suggests that the cpUPR could be harnessed in agriculture, for example, to help crop plants endure harsher climates.