The oxygen-evolving complex (OEC) of photosystem II (PS II) consists of at least three extrinsic membrane-associated protein subunits, OE33, OE23, and OE17, with associated Mn2+, Ca2+, and Cl- ions. These subunits are bound to the lumen side of PS II core proteins embedded in the thylakoid membrane. Our experiments reveal that a significant fraction of each subunit is normally present in unassembled pools within the thylakoid lumen. This conclusion was supported by immunological detection of free subunits after freshly isolated pea thylakoids were fractionated with low levels of Triton X-100. Plastocyanin, a soluble lumen protein, was completely released from the lumen by 0.04% Triton X-100. This gentle detergent treatment also caused the release from the thylakoids of between 10 and 20%, 40 and 60%, and 15 and 50% of OE33, OE23, and OE17, respectively. Measurements of the rates of oxygen evolution from Triton-treated thylakoids, both in the presence and absence of Ca2+, and before and after incubation with hydroquinone, demonstrated that the OEC was not dissociated by the detergent treatment. Thylakoids isolated from spinach released similar amounts of extrinsic proteins after Triton treatment. These data demonstrate that physiologically active chloroplasts contain significant pools of unassembled extrinsic OEC polypeptide subunits free in the lumen of the thylakoids.

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