‘Light-swallowing’ proteins discovered in Gulf of Eilat

Dr. Oded Beja in his lab – “These proteins take light energy and transform them into chemical energy, similar to what plants do.”Technion researchers have discovered unique proteins in the Gulf of Eilat that “swallow” light of various wavelengths, and …

Dr. Oded Beja in his lab – “These proteins take light energy and transform them into chemical energy, similar to what plants do.”Technion researchers have discovered unique proteins in the Gulf of Eilat that “swallow” light of various wavelengths, and identified the mechanism within them that allows the absorption of the different kinds of light.

The researchers discovered the proteins in the Gulf of Eilat, together with a group of U.S. scientists. The discovery will be published soon in the prestigious scientific periodical EBMO (European Molecular Biology Organization) Journal.

Technion Faculty of Biology senior lecturer Dr. Oded Beja discovered three years ago that these special proteins, called proteorhodopsin proteins could absorb light, and convert it into chemical energy. While doing post-doctoral work in Monterey, California, he found that some of these new proteins could absorb green light (near sea level), while others absorbed blue light (in the sea depths). His findings were published at the time in Nature and Science magazines.

“These proteins take light energy and transform them into chemical energy, similar to what plants do,” says Beja.

His research team at the Technion has now identified the precise mechanism in the protein that enables similar proteins to absorb light of differing wave lengths. The discovery was a unique team effort. Eight months ago, Dikla Man, a master’s student in biology, for whom Beja is an advisor, used a computer to built a model of the amino acid that was likely to be responsible for the difference in absorption.

At the same time, a doctoral student Gisela Sabihi was examining the diversity of proteins in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Taking a sample from the Gulf of Eilat, she used a special procedure the amplify DNA of this protein, and found that a change in the amino acid identified by the computer changed the light absorption – the same change that had been found by her fellow student.

“What Dikla predicted in the lab, Gisella found in nature, in the depths of Eilat,” says Beja. “Essentially, we found a mechanism in the lab that nature had found millions of years before us deep in the sea.”

Beja said that there was extensive international interest in their work, which is continuing. While the work is still at the level of pure science, it can be speculated that this knowledge will eventually have important implications for the environment.