Photosynthetic organisms require rapid and reversible down-regulation of light harvesting to avoid photodamage. Response to unpredictable light fluctuations is achieved by inducing energy-dependent quenching, qE, which is the major component of the process known as non-photochemical quenching (NPQ) of chlorophyll fluorescence. qE is controlled by the operation of the xanthophyll cycle and accumulation of specific types of proteins, upon thylakoid lumen acidification. The protein cofactors so far identified to modulate qE in photosynthetic eukaryotes are the photosystem II subunit S (PsbS) and light-harvesting complex stress-related (LHCSR/LHCX) proteins. A transition from LHCSR- to PsbS-dependent qE took place during the evolution of the Viridiplantae (also known as ‘green lineage’ organisms), such as green algae, mosses and vascular plants. Multiple studies showed that LHCSR and PsbS proteins have distinct functions in the mechanism of qE. LHCX(-like) proteins are closely related to LHCSR proteins and found in ‘red lineage’ organisms that contain secondary red plastids, such as diatoms. Although LHCX proteins appear to control qE in diatoms, their role in the mechanism remains poorly understood. Here, we present the current knowledge on the functions and evolution of these crucial proteins, which evolved in photosynthetic eukaryotes to optimise light harvesting.

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