Bacterial phytochromes: more than meets the light

Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 2011 Feb;46(1):67-88. doi: 10.3109/10409238.2010.546389.


Phytochromes are environmental sensors, historically thought of as red/far-red photoreceptors in plants. Their photoperception occurs through a covalently linked tetrapyrrole chromophore, which undergoes a light-dependent conformational change propagated through the protein to a variable output domain. The phytochrome composition is modular, typically consisting of a PAS-GAF-PHY architecture for the N-terminal photosensory core. A collection of three-dimensional structures has uncovered key features, including an unusual figure-of-eight knot, an extension reaching from the PHY domain to the chromophore-binding GAF domain, and a centrally located, long α-helix hypothesized to be crucial for intramolecular signaling. Continuing identification of phytochromes in microbial systems has expanded the assigned sensory abilities of this family out of the red and into the yellow, green, blue, and violet portions of the spectrum. Furthermore, phytochromes acting not as photoreceptors but as redox sensors have been recognized. In addition, architectures other than PAS-GAF-PHY are known, thus revealing phytochromes to be a varied group of sensory receptors evolved to utilize their modular design to perceive a signal and respond accordingly. This review focuses on the structures of bacterial phytochromes and implications for signal transmission. We also discuss the small but growing set of bacterial phytochromes for which a physiological function has been ascertained.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena*
  • Bradyrhizobiaceae / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Photoreceptors, Microbial / chemistry*
  • Photoreceptors, Microbial / physiology*
  • Phytochrome / chemistry*
  • Phytochrome / physiology*
  • Protein Conformation
  • Signal Transduction
  • Tetrapyrroles


  • Photoreceptors, Microbial
  • Tetrapyrroles
  • Phytochrome