© 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved. Plants, algae and cyanobacteria need to regulate photosynthetic light harvesting in response to the constantly changing light environment. Rapid adjustments are required to maintain fitness because of a trade-off between efficient solar energy conversion and photoprotection. The xanthophyll cycle, in which the carotenoid pigment violaxanthin is reversibly converted into zeaxanthin, is ubiquitous among green algae and plants and is necessary for the regulation of light harvesting, protection from oxidative stress and adaptation to different light conditions 1,2. Violaxanthin de-epoxidase (VDE) is the key enzyme responsible for zeaxanthin synthesis from violaxanthin under excess light. Here we show that the Chlorophycean VDE (CVDE) gene from the model green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii encodes an atypical VDE. This protein is not homologous to the VDE found in plants and is instead related to a lycopene cyclase from photosynthetic bacteria 3. Unlike the plant-type VDE that is located in the thylakoid lumen, the Chlamydomonas CVDE protein is located on the stromal side of the thylakoid membrane. Phylogenetic analysis suggests that CVDE evolved from an ancient de-epoxidase that was present in the common ancestor of green algae and plants, providing evidence of unexpected diversity in photoprotection in the green lineage.