Diverse higher plant species synthesize low molecular weight (LMW) heat shock proteins (HSPs) which localize to chloroplasts. These proteins are homologous to LMW HSPs found in the cytoplasm of all eukaryotes, a class of HSPs whose molecular mode of action is not understood. To obtain basic information concerning the role of chloroplast HSPs, we examined the accumulation, stability, tissue specificity, and intra-chloroplast localization of HSP21, the major LMW chloroplast HSP in pea. Intact pea plants were subjected to heat stress conditions which would be encountered in the natural environment and HSP21 mRNA and protein levels were measured in leaves and roots. HSP21 was not detected in leaves or roots before stress, but the mature, 21-kD protein accumulated in direct proportion to temperature and HSP21 mRNA levels in both tissues. All of the HSP21 in leaves was localized to chloroplasts; there was no evidence for its transport into other organelles. In chloroplast fractionation experiments, greater than 80% of HSP21 was recovered in the soluble chloroplast protein fraction. The half-life of HSP21 at control temperatures was 52 +/- 12 h, suggesting the protein's function is critical during recovery as well as during stress. We hypothesize that HSP21 functions in a catalytic fashion in both photosynthetic and nonphotosynthetic plastids.

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