The evolution of photosynthesis caused the oxygen-rich atmosphere in which we thrive today. Although the reaction centers involved in oxygenic photosynthesis probably evolved from a protein like the reaction centers in modern anoxygenic photosynthesis, modern anoxygenic reaction centers are poorly understood. One such anaerobic reaction center is found in Heliobacterium modesticaldum. Here, the photosynthetic properties of H. modesticaldum are investigated, especially as they pertain to its unique photochemical reaction center.
The first part of this dissertation describes the optimization of the previously established protocol for the H. modesticaldum reaction center isolation. Subsequently, electron transfer is characterized by ultrafast spectroscopy; the primary electron acceptor, a chlorophyll a derivative, is reduced in ~25 ps, and forward electron transfer occurs directly to a 4Fe-4S cluster in ~650 ps without the requirement for a quinone intermediate. A 2.2-angstrom resolution X-ray crystal structure of the homodimeric heliobacterial reaction center is solved, which is the first ever homodimeric reaction center structure to be solved, and is discussed as it pertains to the structure-function relationship in energy and electron transfer. The structure has a transmembrane helix arrangement similar to that of Photosystem I, but differences in antenna and electron transfer cofactor positions explain variations in biophysical comparisons. The structure is then compared with other reaction centers to infer evolutionary hypotheses suggesting that the ancestor to all modern reaction centers could reduce mobile quinones, and that Photosystem I added lower energy cofactors to its electron transfer chain to avoid the formation of singlet oxygen.
In the second part of this dissertation, hydrogen production rates of H. modesticaldum are quantified in multiple conditions. Hydrogen production only occurs in cells grown without ammonia, and is further increased by removal of N2. These results are used to propose a scheme that summarizes the hydrogen-production metabolism of H. modesticaldum, in which electrons from pyruvate oxidation are shuttled through an electron transport pathway including the reaction center, ultimately reducing nitrogenase. In conjunction, electron microscopy images of H. modesticaldum are shown, which confirm that extended membrane systems are not exhibited by heliobacteria.