Microbial rhodopsins are increasingly favoured over chlorophyll in High Nutrient Low Chlorophyll waters

Environ Microbiol Rep. 2021 Jun;13(3):401-406. doi: 10.1111/1758-2229.12948. Epub 2021 Apr 18.


Microbial rhodopsins are simple light-harvesting complexes that, unlike chlorophyll photosystems, have no iron requirements for their synthesis and phototrophic functions. Here, we report the environmental concentrations of rhodopsin along the Subtropical Frontal Zone off New Zealand, where Subtropical waters encounter the iron-limited Subantarctic High Nutrient Low Chlorophyll (HNLC) region. Rhodopsin concentrations were highest in HNLC waters where chlorophyll-a concentrations were lowest. Furthermore, while the ratio of rhodopsin to chlorophyll-a photosystems was on average 20 along the transect, this ratio increased to over 60 in HNLC waters. We further show that microbial rhodopsins are abundant in both picoplankton (0.2-3 μm) and in the larger (>3 μm) size fractions of the microbial community containing eukaryotic plankton and/or particle-attached prokaryotes. These findings suggest that rhodopsin phototrophy could be critical for microbial plankton to adapt to resource-limiting environments where photosynthesis and possibly cellular respiration are impaired.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Chlorophyll*
  • Nutrients
  • Photosynthesis
  • Plankton
  • Rhodopsins, Microbial*


  • Rhodopsins, Microbial
  • Chlorophyll