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Vesicle-inducing protein in plastids (VIPP1) is essential for the biogenesis and maintenance of thylakoid membranes, which transform light into life. However, it is unknown how VIPP1 performs its vital membrane-shaping function. Here, we use cryo-electron microscopy to determine structures of cyanobacterial VIPP1 rings, revealing how VIPP1 monomers flex and interweave to form basket-like assemblies of different symmetries. Three VIPP1 monomers together coordinate a non-canonical nucleotide binding pocket that is required for VIPP1 oligomerization. Inside the ring's lumen, amphipathic helices from each monomer align to form large hydrophobic columns, enabling VIPP1 to bind and curve membranes. In vivo point mutations in these hydrophobic surfaces cause extreme thylakoid swelling under high light, indicating an essential role of VIPP1 lipid binding in resisting stress-induced damage. Our study provides a structural basis for understanding how the oligomerization of VIPP1 drives the biogenesis of thylakoid membranes and protects these life-giving membranes from environmental stress. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.

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