The photosynthetic light-harvesting systems of purple bacteria and plants both utilize specific carotenoids as quenchers of the harmful (bacterio)chlorophyll triplet states via triplet-triplet energy transfer. Here, we explore how the binding of carotenoids to the different types of light-harvesting proteins found in plants and purple bacteria provides adaptation in this vital photoprotective function. We show that the creation of the carotenoid triplet states in the light-harvesting complexes may occur without detectable conformational changes, in contrast to that found for carotenoids in solution. However, in plant light-harvesting complexes, the triplet wavefunction is shared between the carotenoids and their adjacent chlorophylls. This is not observed for the antenna proteins of purple bacteria, where the triplet is virtually fully located on the carotenoid molecule. These results explain the faster triplet-triplet transfer times in plant light-harvesting complexes. We show that this molecular mechanism, which spreads the location of the triplet wavefunction through the pigments of plant light-harvesting complexes, results in the absence of any detectable chlorophyll triplet in these complexes upon excitation, and we propose that it emerged as a photoprotective adaptation during the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis.
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