Encyclopedia Articles

Photosynthesis article provided by Encarta Encyclopedia 2000



Photosynthesis, process by which green plants and certain other organisms use the energy of light to convert carbon dioxide and water into the simple sugar glucose. In so doing, photosynthesis provides the basic energy source for virtually all organisms. An extremely important byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen, on which most organisms depend.

Photosynthesis occurs in green plants, seaweeds, algae, and certain bacteria. These organisms are veritable sugar factories, producing millions of new glucose molecules per second. Plants use much of this glucose, a carbohydrate, as an energy source to build leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds. They also convert glucose to cellulose, the structural material used in their cell walls. Most plants produce more glucose than they use, however, and they store it in the form of starch and other carbohydrates in roots, stems, and leaves. The plants can then draw on these reserves for extra energy or building materials. Each year, photosynthesizing organisms produce about 170 billion metric tons of extra carbohydrates, about 30 metric tons for every person on earth.

Photosynthesis has far-reaching implications. Like plants, humans and other animals depend on glucose as an energy source, but they are unable to produce it on their own and must rely ultimately on the glucose produced by plants. Moreover, the oxygen humans and other animals breathe is the oxygen released during photosynthesis. Humans are also dependent on ancient products of photosynthesis, known as fossil fuels, for supplying most of our modern industrial energy. These fossil fuels, including natural gas, coal, and petroleum, are composed of a complex mix of hydrocarbons, the remains of organisms that relied on photosynthesis millions of years ago. Thus, virtually all life on earth, directly or indirectly, depends on photosynthesis as a source of food, energy, and oxygen, making it one of the most important biochemical processes known.


Plant photosynthesis occurs in leaves and green stems within specialized cell structures called chloroplasts. One plant leaf is composed of tens of thousands of cells, and each cell contains 40 to 50 chloroplasts. The chloroplast, an oval-shaped structure, is divided by membranes into numerous disk-shaped compartments. These disklike compartments, called thylakoids, are arranged vertically in the chloroplast like a stack of plates or pancakes. A stack of thylakoids is called a granum (plural, grana); the grana lie suspended in a fluid known as stroma.

Embedded in the membranes of the thylakoids are hundreds of molecules of chlorophyll, a light-trapping pigment required for photosynthesis. Additional light-trapping pigments, enzymes (organic substances that speed up chemical reactions), and other molecules needed for photosynthesis are also located within the thylakoid membranes. The pigments and enzymes are arranged in two types of units, Photosystem I and Photosystem II. Because a chloroplast may have dozens of thylakoids, and each thylakoid may contain thousands of photosystems, each chloroplast will contain millions of pigment molecules.


Photosynthesis is a very complex process, and for the sake of convenience and ease of understanding, plant biologists divide it into two stages. In the first stage, the light-dependent reaction, the chloroplast traps light energy and converts it into chemical energy contained in nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH) and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), two molecules used in the second stage of photosynthesis. In the second stage, called the light-independent reaction (formerly called the dark reaction), NADPH provides the hydrogen atoms that help form glucose, and ATP provides the energy for this and other reactions used to synthesize glucose. These two stages reflect the literal meaning of the term photosynthesis, to build with light. AThe Light-Dependent Reaction Photosynthesis relies on flows of energy and electrons initiated by light energy. Electrons are minute particles that travel in a specific orbit around the nuclei of atoms and carry a small electrical charge. Light energy causes the electrons in chlorophyll and other light-trapping pigments to boost up and out of their orbit; the electrons instantly fall back into place, releasing resonance energy, or vibrating energy, as they go, all in millionths of a second.

Chlorophyll and the other pigments are clustered next to one another in the photosystems, and the vibrating energy passes rapidly from one chlorophyll or pigment molecule to the next, like the transfer of energy in billiard balls. Light contains many colors, each with a defined range of wavelengths measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Certain red and blue wavelengths of light are the most effective in photosynthesis because they have exactly the right amount of energy to energize, or excite, chlorophyll electrons and boost them out of their orbits to a higher energy level. Other pigments, called accessory pigments, enhance the light-absorption capacity of the leaf by capturing a broader spectrum of blue and red wavelengths, along with yellow and orange wavelengths. None of the photosynthetic pigments absorb green light; as a result, green wavelengths are reflected, which is why plants appear green.

Photosynthesis begins when light strikes Photosystem I pigments and excites their electrons. The energy passes rapidly from molecule to molecule until it reaches a special chlorophyll molecule called P700, so named because it absorbs light in the red region of the spectrum at wavelengths of 700 nanometers. Until this point, only energy has moved from molecule to molecule; now electrons themselves transfer between molecules. P700 uses the energy of the excited electrons to boost its own electrons to an energy level that enables an adjoining electron acceptor molecule to capture them. The electrons are then passed down a chain of carrier molecules, called an electron transport chain. The electrons are passed from one carrier molecule to another in a downhill direction, like individuals in a bucket brigade passing water from the top of a hill to the bottom. Each electron carrier is at a lower energy level than the one before it, and the result is that electrons release energy as they move down the chain. At the end of the electron transport chain lies the molecule nicotine adenine dinucleotide (NADP+). Using the energy released by the flow of electrons, two electrons from the electron transport chain combine with a hydrogen ion and NADP+ to form NADPH.

When P700 transfers its electrons to the electron acceptor, it becomes deficient in electrons. Before it can function again, it must be replenished with new electrons. Photosystem II accomplishes this task. As in Photosystem I, light energy activates electrons of the Photosystem II pigments. These pigments transfer the energy of their excited electrons to a special Photosystem II chlorophyll molecule, P680, that absorbs light best in the red region at 680 nanometers. Just as in Photosystem I, energy is transferred among pigment molecules and is then directed to the P680 chlorophyll, where the energy is used to transfer electrons from P680 to its adjoining electron acceptor molecule.

From the Photosystem II electron acceptor, the electrons are passed through a different electron transport chain. As they pass along the cascade of electron carrier molecules, the electrons give up some of their energy to fuel the production of ATP, formed by the addition of one phosphorous atom to adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Eventually, the electron transport carrier molecules deliver the Photosystem II electrons to Photosystem I, which uses them to maintain the flow of electrons to P700, thus restoring its function. P680 in Photosystem II is now electron deficient because it has donated electrons to P700 in Photosystem I. P680 electrons are replenished by the water that has been absorbed by the plant roots and transported to the chloroplasts in the leaves. The movement of electrons in Photosystems I and II and the action of an enzyme split the water into oxygen, hydrogen ions, and electrons. The electrons from water flow to Photosystem II, replacing the electrons lost by P680. Some of the hydrogen ions may be used to produce NADPH at the end of the electron transport chain, and the oxygen from the water diffuses out of the chloroplast and is released into the atmosphere through pores in the leaf.

The transfer of electrons in a step-by-step fashion in Photosystems I and II releases energy and heat slowly, thus protecting the chloroplast and cell from a harmful temperature increase. It also provides time for the plant to form NADPH and ATP. In the words of American biochemist and Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, "What drives life is thus a little electric current, set up by the sunshine." BThe Light-Independent Reaction The chemical energy required for the light-independent reaction is supplied by the ATP and NADPH molecules produced in the light-dependent reaction. The light-independent reaction is cyclic, that is, it begins with a molecule that must be regenerated at the end of the reaction in order for the process to continue. Termed the Calvin cycle after the American chemist Melvin Calvin who discovered it, the light-independent reactions use the electrons and hydrogen ions associated with NADPH and the phosphorous associated with ATP to produce glucose. These reactions occur in the stroma, the fluid in the chloroplast surrounding the thylakoids, and each step is controlled by a different enzyme. The light-independent reaction requires the presence of carbon dioxide molecules, which enter the plant through pores in the leaf, diffuse through the cell to the chloroplast, and disperse in the stroma. The light-independent reaction begins in the stroma when these carbon dioxide molecules link to sugar molecules called ribulose bisphosphate (RuBP) in a process known as carbon fixation.

With the help of an enzyme, six molecules of carbon dioxide bond to six molecules of RuBP to create six new molecules. Several intermediate steps, which require ATP, NADPH, and additional enzymes, rearrange the position of the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms in these six molecules, and when the reactions are complete, one new molecule of glucose has been constructed and five molecules of RuBP have been reconstructed. This process occurs repeatedly in each chloroplast as long as carbon dioxide, ATP, and NADPH are available. The thousands of glucose molecules produced in this reaction are processed by the plant to produce energy in the process known as aerobic respiration, used as structural materials, or stored. The regenerated RuBP is used to start the Calvin cycle all over again.


A majority of plants use these steps in photosynthesis. Plants such as corn and crabgrass that have evolved in hot, dry environments, however, must overcome certain obstacles to photosynthesis. On hot days, they partially close the pores in their leaves to prevent the escape of water. With the pores only slightly open, adequate amounts of carbon dioxide cannot enter the leaf, and the Calvin cycle comes to a halt. To get around this problem, certain hot-weather plants have developed a way to keep carbon dioxide flowing to the stroma without capturing it directly from the air. They open their pores slightly, take in carbon dioxide, and transport it deep within the leaves. Here they stockpile it in a chemical form that releases the carbon dioxide slowly and steadily into the Calvin cycle. With this system, these plants can continue photosynthesis on hot days, even with their pores almost completely closed. A field of corn thus remains green on blistering days when neighboring plants wither, and crabgrass thrives in lawns browned by the summer sun.

Bacteria lack chloroplasts, and instead use structures called chromatophores-membranes formed by numerous foldings of the plasma membrane, the membrane surrounding the fluid, or cytoplasm, that fills the cell. The chromatophores house thylakoids similar to plant thylakoids, which in some bacteria contain chlorophyll. For these bacteria, the process of photosynthesis is similar to that of plants, algae, and seaweed. Many of these chlorophyll-containing bacteria are abundant in oceans, lakes, and rivers, and the oxygen they release dissolves in the water and enables fish and other aquatic organisms to survive. Certain archaebacteria, members of a group of primitive bacteria-like organisms, carry out photosynthesis in a different manner. The mud-dwelling green sulfur and purple sulfur archaebacteria use hydrogen sulfide instead of water in photosynthesis. These archaebacteria release sulfur rather than oxygen, which, along with hydrogen sulfide, imparts the rotten egg smell to mudflats. Halobacteria, archaebacteria found in the salt flats of deserts, rely on the pigment bacteriorhodopsin instead of chlorophyll for photosynthesis. These archaebacteria do not carry out the complete process of photosynthesis; although they produce ATP in a process similar to the light-dependent reaction and use it for energy, they do not produce glucose. Halobacteria are among the most ancient organisms, and may have been the starting point for the evolution of photosynthesis.

While it may seem that we understand photosynthesis in detail, decades of experiments have given us only a partial understanding of this important process. A more thorough understanding of the details of photosynthesis may pave the way for development of crops that are more efficient at using the sun's energy, producing food for increasingly bountiful harvests.

Contributed By: Leal G. Dickson

"Photosynthesis," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.