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Phycobilins are chromophores (light-capturing molecules) found in cyanobacteria and in the chloroplasts of red algae, glaucophytes and some cryptomonads.

They are unique among the photosynthetic pigments in that they are bonded to certain water-soluble proteins, known as phycobiliproteins. Phycobiliproteins then pass the light energy to chlorophylls for photosynthesis.

The phycobilins are especially efficient at absorbing red, orange, yellow, and green light, wavelengths that are not well absorbed by chlorophyll a. Organisms growing in shallow waters tend to contain phycobilins that can capture yellow/red light, while those at greater depth often contain more of the phycobilins that can capture green light, which is relatively more abundant there.

There are four types of phycobilins:

  • Phycoerythrobilin, which is red
  • Phycourobilin, which is orange
  • Phycoviolobilin (also known as phycobiliviolin) found in phycoerythrocyanin
  • Phycocyanobilin (also known as phycobiliverdin), which is blue.

They can be found in different combinations attached to phycobiliproteins to confer specific spectroscopic properties.

Model of phycobilisome.

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