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Leaf Xanthophyll content and composition in sun and shade determined by HPLC


As a part of our investigations to test the hypothesis that zeaxanthin formed by reversible de-epoxidation of violaxanthin serves to dissipate any excessive and potentially harmful excitation energy we determined the influence of light climate on the size of the xanthophyll cycle pool (violaxanthin + antheraxanthin + zeaxanthin) in leaves of a number of species of higher plants. The maximum amount of zeaxanthin that can be formed by de-epoxidation of violaxanthin and antheraxanthin is determined by the pool size of the xanthophyll cycle. To quantitate the individual leaf carotenoids a rapid, sensitive and accurate HPLC method was developed using a non-endcapped Zorbax ODS column, giving baseline separation of lutein and zeaxanthin as well as of other carotenoids and Chl a and b.

The size of the xanthophyll cycle pool, both on a basis of light-intercepting leaf area and of light-harvesting chlorophyll, was ca. four times greater in sun-grown leaves of a group of ten sun tolerant species than in shade-grown leaves in a group of nine shade tolerant species. In contrast there were no marked or consistent differences between the two groups in the content of the other major leaf xanthophylls, lutein and neoxanthin. Also, in each of four species examined the xanthophyll pool size increased with an increase in the amount of light available during leaf development whereas there was little change in the content of the other xanthophylls. However, the α-carotene/β-carotene ratio decreased and little or no α-carotene was detected in sun-grown leaves. Among shade-grown leaves the α-carotene/β-carotene ratio was considerably higher in species deemed to be umbrophilic than in species deemed to be heliophilic.

The percentage of the xanthophyll cycle pool present as violaxanthin (di-epoxy-zeaxanthin) at solar noon was 96–100% for shade-grown plants and 4–53% for sun-grown plants with zeaxanthin accounting for most of the balance. The percentage of zeaxanthin in leaves exposed to midday solar radiation was higher in those with low than in those with high photosynthetic capacity.

The results are consistent with the hypothesis that the xanthophyll cycle is involved in the regulation of energy dissipation in the pigment bed, thereby preventing a buildup of excessive excitation energy at the reaction centers.

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epoxidation state (V+0.5A)/(V+A+Z)






photon flux density






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C.I.W.-D.P.B. Publiation No. 1035

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Thayer, S.S., Björkman, O. Leaf Xanthophyll content and composition in sun and shade determined by HPLC. Photosynth Res 23, 331–343 (1990).

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Key words

  • HPLC
  • shade plants
  • sun plants
  • violaxanthin
  • xanthophyll cycle
  • zeaxanthin