The Phytochrome System and the Red/Far-Red Response


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Diagram shows the active, written as P r, and inactive, written as P f r, forms of phytochrome. An arrow indicates that red light converts the inactive form to the active form. Far red light or darkness converts the active form back to the inactive form. When phytochrome is active, a cellular response occurs.
The biologically inactive form of phytochrome (Pr) is converted to the biologically active form Pfr under illumination with red light. Far-red light and darkness convert the molecule back to the inactive form. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The phytochromes are a family of chromoproteins with a linear tetrapyrrole chromophore, similar to the ringed tetrapyrrole light-absorbing head group of chlorophyll. Phytochromes have two photo-interconvertible forms: Pr and Pfr. Pr absorbs red light (~667 nm) and is immediately converted to Pfr. Pfr absorbs far-red light (~730 nm) and is quickly converted back to Pr. Absorption of red or far-red light causes a massive change to the shape of the chromophore, altering the conformation and activity of the phytochrome protein to which it is bound. Pfr is the physiologically active form of the protein; therefore, exposure to red light yields physiological activity. Exposure to far-red light inhibits phytochrome activity. Together, the two forms represent the phytochrome system.

The phytochrome system acts as a biological light switch. It monitors the level, intensity, duration, and color of environmental light. The effect of red light is reversible by immediately shining far-red light on the sample, which converts the chromoprotein to the inactive Pr form. Additionally, Pfr can slowly revert to Pr in the dark, or break down over time. In all instances, the physiological response induced by red light is reversed. The active form of phytochrome (Pfr) can directly activate other molecules in the cytoplasm, or it can be trafficked to the nucleus, where it directly activates or represses specific gene expression.

Once the phytochrome system evolved, plants adapted it to serve a variety of needs. Unfiltered, full sunlight contains much more red light than far-red light. Because chlorophyll absorbs strongly in the red region of the visible spectrum, but not in the far-red region, any plant in the shade of another plant on the forest floor will be exposed to red-depleted, far-red-enriched light. The preponderance of far-red light converts phytochrome in the shaded leaves to the Pr (inactive) form, slowing growth. The nearest non-shaded (or even less-shaded) areas on the forest floor have more red light; leaves exposed to these areas sense the red light, which activates the Pfr form and induces growth. In short, plant shoots use the phytochrome system to grow away from shade and towards light. Because competition for light is so fierce in a dense plant community, the evolutionary advantages of the phytochrome system are obvious.

In seeds, the phytochrome system is not used to determine direction and quality of light (shaded versus unshaded). Instead, is it used merely to determine if there is any light at all. This is especially important in species with very small seeds, such as lettuce. Because of their size, lettuce seeds have few food reserves. Their seedlings cannot grow for long before they run out of fuel. If they germinated even a centimeter under the soil surface, the seedling would never make it into the sunlight and would die. In the dark, phytochrome is in the Pr (inactive form) and the seed will not germinate; it will only germinate if exposed to light at the surface of the soil. Upon exposure to light, Pr is converted to Pfr and germination proceeds.

Plants also use the phytochrome system to sense the change of season. Photoperiodism is a biological response to the timing and duration of day and night. It controls flowering, setting of winter buds, and vegetative growth. Detection of seasonal changes is crucial to plant survival. Although temperature and light intensity influence plant growth, they are not reliable indicators of season because they may vary from one year to the next. Day length is a better indicator of the time of year.

As stated above, unfiltered sunlight is rich in red light but deficient in far-red light. Therefore, at dawn, all the phytochrome molecules in a leaf quickly convert to the active Pfr form, and remain in that form until sunset. In the dark, the Pfr form takes hours to slowly revert back to the Pr form. If the night is long (as in winter), all of the Pfr form reverts. If the night is short (as in summer), a considerable amount of Pfr may remain at sunrise. By sensing the Pr/Pfr ratio at dawn, a plant can determine the length of the day/night cycle. In addition, leaves retain that information for several days, allowing a comparison between the length of the previous night and the preceding several nights. Shorter nights indicate springtime to the plant; when the nights become longer, autumn is approaching. This information, along with sensing temperature and water availability, allows plants to determine the time of the year and adjust their physiology accordingly. Short-day (long-night) plants use this information to flower in the late summer and early fall, when nights exceed a critical length (often eight or fewer hours). Long-day (short-night) plants flower during the spring, when darkness is less than a critical length (often eight to 15 hours). Not all plants use the phytochrome system in this way. Flowering in day-neutral plants is not regulated by daylength.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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