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The chemical structure of cryptoxanthin

Xanthophylls (originally phylloxanthins) are yellow pigments from the carotenoid group. Their molecular structure is based on carotenes; contrary to the carotenes, some hydrogen atoms are substituted by hydroxyl groups and/or some pairs of hydrogen atoms are substituted by oxygen atoms. They are found in the leaves of most plants and are synthesized within the plastids. They are involved in photosynthesis along with green chlorophyll, which typically covers up the yellow except in autumn, when the chlorophyll is denatured by the cold.

In plants, xanthophylls are considered accessory pigments, along with anthocyanins, carotenes, and sometimes phycobiliproteins. Xanthophylls, along with carotenic pigments are seen when leaves turn orange in the autumn season.

Animals cannot produce xanthophylls, and thus xanthophylls found in animals (e.g. in the eye) come from their food intake. The yellow color of chicken egg yolks also comes from ingested xanthophylls.

Xanthophylls are oxidized derivatives of carotenes. They contain hydroxyl groups and are more polar; therefore, they are the pigments that will travel the furthest in paper chromatography.

The group of xanthophylls is composed of lutein, zeaxanthin, and α- and β-cryptoxanthin.

Xanthophyll cycle

The xanthophyll cycle involves conversions of pigments from a non-energy-quenching form to energy-quenching forms. This is a way to reduce the absorption cross-section of the light harvesting antenna, and thus to reduce the amount of energy that reaches the photosynthetic reaction centers. Reducing the light harvesting antenna is one of the main ways of protecting against photoinhibition and changes in the xanthophyll cycling takes place on a time scale of minutes to hours [1]. In higher plants there are three carotenoid pigments that are active in the xanthophyll cycle: violoxanthin, antheraxanthin and zeaxanthin. During light stress violoxanthin is converted to antheraxanthin and zeaxanthin, which functions as photoprotective pigments.

In diatoms and dinoflagellates the xanthophyll cycle consists of the pigment diadinoxanthin, which is transformed into diatoxanthin (diatoms) or dinoxanthin (dinoflagellates), at high light [2].


  1. Falkowski, P. G. & J. A. Raven, 1997, Aquatic photosynthesis. Blackwell Science, 375 pp
  2. Jeffrey, S. W. & M. Vesk, 1997. Introduction to marine phytoplankton and their pigment signatures. In Jeffrey, S. W., R. F. C. Mantoura & S. W. Wright (eds.), Phytoplankton pigments in oceanography, pp 37-84. – UNESCO Publishing, Paris.
  • Demmig-Adams, B & W. W. Adams, 2006. Photoprotection in an ecological context: the remarkable complexity of thermal energy dissipation, New Phytologist, 172: 11–21.

External links

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