Atomic structures of respiratory complex III2, complex IV, and supercomplex III2-IV from vascular plants

Elife. 2021 Jan 19:10:e62047. doi: 10.7554/eLife.62047.


Mitochondrial complex III (CIII2) and complex IV (CIV), which can associate into a higher-order supercomplex (SC III2+IV), play key roles in respiration. However, structures of these plant complexes remain unknown. We present atomic models of CIII2, CIV, and SC III2+IV from Vigna radiata determined by single-particle cryoEM. The structures reveal plant-specific differences in the MPP domain of CIII2 and define the subunit composition of CIV. Conformational heterogeneity analysis of CIII2 revealed long-range, coordinated movements across the complex, as well as the motion of CIII2's iron-sulfur head domain. The CIV structure suggests that, in plants, proton translocation does not occur via the H channel. The supercomplex interface differs significantly from that in yeast and bacteria in its interacting subunits, angle of approach and limited interactions in the mitochondrial matrix. These structures challenge long-standing assumptions about the plant complexes and generate new mechanistic hypotheses.

Keywords: Vigna radiata; cryoEM; membrane protein; mitochondria; molecular biophysics; plant biology; respiration; structural biology; supercomplex.

Plain language summary

Most living things including plants and animals use respiration to release energy from food. Respiration requires the activity of five large protein complexes typically called complex I, II, III, IV and V. Sometimes these complexes combine to form supercomplexes. The complexes are similar across plants, animals and other living things, but there are also many differences. Detailed structures of the respiratory complexes have been determined for many species of animals, fungi and bacteria, highlighting similarities and differences between organisms, and providing clues as to how respiration works. Yet, there is still a lot to learn about these complexes in plants. To bridge this gap, Maldonado et al. used a technique called cryo electron microscopy to study the structure of complexes III and IV and the supercomplex they form in the mung bean. This is the first study of the detailed structure of these two complexes in plants. The results showed many similarities to other species, as well as several features that are specific to plants. The way the two complexes interact to form a supercomplex is different than in other species, as are several other, smaller, structural features. Further examination of complex III revealed that it is flexible and that movements are coordinated across the length of the complex. Maldonado et al. speculate that this may allow it to coordinate its role in respiration with its other cellular roles. Understanding how plant respiratory complexes work could lead to improvements in crop yields or, since respiration is required for survival, result in the development of herbicides that block respiration in plants more effectively and specifically. Further researching the structure of the plant respiratory complexes and supercomplexes could also shed light on how plants adapt to different environments, including how they change to survive global warming.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Electron Transport Complex III / chemistry*
  • Electron Transport Complex IV / chemistry*
  • Vigna / chemistry
  • Vigna / enzymology*


  • Electron Transport Complex IV
  • Electron Transport Complex III

Grants and funding

No external funding was received for this work.