Photosynthesis (from photo- (light) and synthesis (composition)) is the process by which plants and certain other organisms obtain and convert solar (or light) energy into chemical energy.
All cells need energy, the ability to perform or complete work, in order for them to maintain their existence or homeostasis. If we do not have energy, we cannot do even the most basic things in life. These basic things include walking, standing, sitting, and even your heart beating. Here is a list of examples of what certain cells require energy for:
- Energy is used in active transport.
- Energy is needed in the synthesis of proteins, lipids and carbohydrates.
- Respond to chemical signals at the cell surface.
- Energy is required for cell movement.
- Energy is used to produce light in some organisms, such as fireflies.
Life as we know it depends on chemical energy, energy saved in chemical bonds. Energy needs to be chemically bound in order for it to be useful for cell metabolism. There are two ways in which an organism obtains energy:
- Autotrophs are organisms that do not eat or absorb other organisms for chemical energy, instead, they make their own. Most autotrophs are photoautotrophs. Photoautotrophs use sunlight to synthesize glucose in a process called photosynthesis. Plants, protists, and bacteria are often photoautotrophs. Autotrophic organisms that start a food chain are called producers. These are in turn consumed by other organisms. Grass that is eaten by a herbivore is therefore an example of a producer (photoautotroph in this case) being consumed by a heterotroph.
- Heterotrophs are organisms that are not able to chemically bind their own energy, so they consume other organisms or their waste. Heterotrophs are also known as consumers because they consume other organisms for energy in the food chain cycle. Examples of heterotrophs are foxes, cats, snakes, hawks, eagles, crocodiles, tigers, lions, and even us: humans!
Photosynthesis converts light/solar energy into chemical energy, and thus is very important to life. But, how does it work? Let's first take a look at the chemical equation for photosynthesis (reactants on the left, products on the right):
energy from the Sun + 6CO2 + 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2
In this process sunlight (photons), carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) is converted into glucose (C6H12O6) and the byproduct oxygen (O2).
Different wavelengths of light are absorbed and reflected by molecules called pigments. In plants, the green pigment that absorbs sunlight is known as chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is found in the chloroplast, an organelle that is the site of photosynthesis (in plants).
Chlorophyll absorbs solar energy and transfers it to chemicals involved in the photosynthetic process. Sunlight contains all the colors of the rainbow (Roy G. Biv). All the colors hit the chlorophyll molecules, but only certain colors are absorbed. Chlorophyll absorbs well in the blue-violet and red sections of the visible light spectrum, whereas chlorophyll reflects most of the green light in the visible light spectrum, giving most plants a green color.
- Carbon Dioxide
Pipe-like structures in the leaves, known as stomata, control the flow of carbon dioxide into a plant and the flow of oxygen outside of the plant. The flow of these gases is also regulated by guard cells, cells that open and close the stomata.
In a vascular plant, pipe-like tissues conduct water to different parts of the plant. In a non-vascular plant, water is unable to be conducted, and therefore, must be absorbed from the plant's surroundings (such as in the soil).
The 2-step process
Now that we have the necessary "ingredients" to perform photosynthesis, we can get started! Photosynthesis occurs in two steps, the Light Reactions (also: light-dependent reaction) and the Calvin Cycle (also: dark-reactions, light-independent reactions, carbon fixation).
The light reactions occur in the thylakoid membrane of the chloroplast. It is made up of two photosystems:
Photons from the sun travel 93 million miles into Photosystem II of the thylakoid. This excites the electrons in the chlorophyll molecule, which are then shifted around various "electron-acceptors"--each electron-accepter causing the electron's energy state to diminish. Moving around these excited electrons cause the electrons, and hydrogen molecules, in H2O (water) to be "donated" over to replace the excited electron's place in the various electron-acceptors in the chloroplast. This causes oxygen to be created as a waste product, as water is essentially stripped off of its hydrogens and electrons, leaving the oxygen molecules all by themselves. As the electron's energy state diminishes, groups of hydrogen protons are transported from the stroma over to the lumen.
Then, Photosystem I allows NADP+, the final electron acceptor in the thylakoid, to accept the not-so-excited electron and a hydrogen proton to make NADPH. This is where the NADPH comes from. Meanwhile, in the lumen, the hydrogen protons, after getting pumped into the lumen, demonstrate chemiosmosis--they are then pumped back up into the stroma, causing ATP synthase. The ATP synthase then merges ADP with several phosphate groups, forming ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate - energy storage molecule). The ATP and NADPH formed by these reactions are needed in the Calvin Cycle.
The chemical equation for Light Reaction is as shown:
SL (sunlight) + H2O → O2 + NADPH + ATP
The two byproducts from our light reactions, ATP and NADPH, are transferred to the stroma, the liquid-filling area of the chloroplast not taken up by the thylakoids, to go through the Calvin Cycle. Six molecules of CO2 react with six molecules of 5-carbon molecule RuBP (also: Ribulose Biphosphate, ribulose-1, 5-biphosphate) to form 12 molecules of 3-carbon molecule phosphoglyceraldehyde (PGAL), also known as glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate. Overall, 36 carbons are being made to react in order to form PGAL. Electrons in the PGAL and carbon dioxide are not in a high enough energy state to start this reaction by themselves, so an energy-source is needed: 12 ATPs and 12 NADPHs.
With all of these combined, 12 ADPs, 12 NADP+s, and 12 phosphate groups are created. The electrons in NADPH are at a higher energy state. When NADPH's electron's energy states go to lower energy states, it helps produce ADP and NADP+ to be formed by putting energy into the reaction. ATPs' electrons, when their phosphate groups are lost, are in a very high energy state. Like NADPH, when they enter into lower energy states, ATP helps drive the reaction.
As cycles reuse things, the Calvin Cycle reuses most of the PGAL to recreate RuBP. This "reusing" part of the cycle, just like in the beginning, will need energy: ATP, ADP and phosphate groups (no NADPH). Extra PGAL not used will be used to make glucose, or C6H12O6 (or any type of carbohydrate, starch or sugar).
The chemical equation of the Calvin Cycle is shown as follows:
CO2 + NADPH + ATP → C6H12O6