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Enhanced light harvesting is an area of interest for optimizing both natural photosynthesis and artificial solar energy capture. Iridescence has been shown to exist widely and in diverse forms in plants and other photosynthetic organisms and symbioses, but there has yet to be any direct link demonstrated between iridescence and photosynthesis. Here we show that epidermal chloroplasts, also known as iridoplasts, in shade-dwelling species of Begonia, notable for their brilliant blue iridescence, have a photonic crystal structure formed from a periodic arrangement of the light-absorbing thylakoid tissue itself. This structure enhances photosynthesis in two ways: by increasing light capture at the predominantly green wavelengths available in shade conditions, and by directly enhancing quantum yield by 5–10% under low-light conditions. These findings together imply that the iridoplast is a highly modified chloroplast structure adapted to make best use of the extremely low-light conditions in the tropical forest understorey in which it is found. A phylogenetically diverse range of shade-dwelling plant species has been found to produce similarly structured chloroplasts, suggesting that the ability to produce chloroplasts whose membranes are organized as a multilayer with photonic properties may be widespread. In fact, given the well-established diversity and plasticity of chloroplasts, our results imply that photonic effects may be important even in plants that do not show any obvious signs of iridescence to the naked eye but where a highly ordered chloroplast structure may present a clear blue reflectance at the microscale. Chloroplasts are generally thought of as purely photochemical; we suggest that one should also think of them as a photonic structure with a complex interplay between control of light propagation, light capture and photochemistry.
- Bristol Quantum Information Institute