Probing heavy metal binding to phycobiliproteins

Jeddidiah Bellamy-Carter, Jaspreet K Sound, Aneika C Leney

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Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, contain some of the most efficient light harvesting complexes known. These large, colourful complexes consist of phycobiliproteins which are extremely valuable in the cosmetics, food, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical industries. Additionally, the colourful and fluorescent properties of phycobiliproteins can be modulated by metal ions, making them highly attractive as heavy metal sensors and heavy metal scavengers. Although the overall quenching ability metal ions have on phycobiliproteins is known, the mechanism of heavy metal binding to phycobiliproteins is not fully understood, limiting their widespread quantitative applications. Here, we show using high-resolution native mass spectrometry that phycobiliprotein complexes bind metal ions in different manners. Through monitoring the binding equilibria and metal binding stoichiometry, we show in particular copper and silver to have drastic, yet different effects on phycobiliprotein structure, both copper and silver modulate the overall complex properties. Together, the data reveals the mechanisms by which metal ions can modulate phycobiliprotein properties which can be used as a basis for the future design of metal-related phycobiliprotein applications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4646-4656
JournalThe FEBS journal
Issue number15
Early online date14 Feb 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 14 Feb 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are extremely thankful for Dr David H. Green at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, and Cecilia Rad‐Menendez and Karen MacKechnie at the Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa (CCAP) for providing algae cultures and for their help and advice with maintaining the algae. We thank Dr Todd Mize for critical reading of this manuscript and Alexandra Munro‐Clark for preliminary purification experiments. JBC, JS and ACL were funded through a BBSRC grant (BB/T015640/1). Funding for reagents and consumables was provided jointly by BBSRC (BB/T015640/1), The Royal Society (RGS\R1\201411) and the University of Birmingham. The Orbitrap Eclipse mass spectrometer used in this research was funded by the BBSRC (BB/S019456/1). We acknowledge the Advanced Mass Spectrometry Facility at the University of Birmingham for maintenance of the instruments used in this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Authors. The FEBS Journal published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Federation of European Biochemical Societies


  • heavy metal toxicity
  • light-harvesting complex
  • native mass spectrometry
  • phycobiliproteins
  • protein-metal interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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