The key enzyme of chlorophyll biosynthesis in higher plants, the light-dependent NADPH:protochlorophyllide oxidoreductase (POR, EC, is a nuclear-encoded plastid protein. Its posttranslational transport into plastids of barley depends on the intraplastidic availability of one of its substrates, protochlorophyllide (PChlide). The precursor of POR (pPOR), synthesized from a corresponding full-length barley cDNA clone by coupling in vitro transcription and translation, is enzymatically active and converts PChlide to chlorophyllide (Chlide) in a light- and NADPH-dependent manner. Chlorophyllide formed catalytically remains tightly but noncovalently bound to the precursor protein and stabilizes a transport-incompetent conformation of pPOR. As shown by in vitro processing experiments, the chloroplast transit peptide in the Chlide-pPOR complex appears to be masked and thus is unable to physically interact with the outer plastid envelope membrane. In contrast, the chloroplast transit peptide in the naked pPOR (without its substrates and its product attached to it) and in the pPOR-substrate complexes, such as pPOR-PChlide or pPOR-PChlide-NADPH, seems to react independently of the mature region of the polypeptide, and thus is able to bind to the plastid envelope. When envelope-bound pPOR-PChlide-NADPH complexes were exposed to light during a short preincubation, the enzymatically produced Chlide slowed down the actual translocation step, giving rise to the sequential appearance of two partially processed translocation intermediates. However, ongoing translocation induced by feeding the chloroplasts delta-aminolevulinic acid, a precursor of PChlide, was able to override these two early blocks in translocation, suggesting that the plastid import machinery has a substantial capacity to denature a tightly folded, envelope-bound precursor protein. Together, our results show that pPOR with Chlide attached to it is impaired both in the ATP-dependent step of binding to a receptor protein component of the outer chloroplast envelope membrane, as well as in the PChlide-dependent step of precursor translocation.

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