Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

18.7A: Introduction to Photosynthesis

Skills to Develop

  1. Define the following:
    1. oxygenic photoautotroph
    2. anoxygenic photoautotroph
    3. photon
  2. Name the two stages of photosynthesis.
  3. State how all radiations in the electromagnetic spectrum travel.
  4. State what constitutes visible light.
  5. Define photon and describe what happens when photons of visible light energy strike certain atoms of pigments during photosynthesis and how this can lead to the generation of ATP.
  6. Describe the structure of a chloroplast and list the pigments it may contain.
  7. Give the overall reaction for photosynthesis.
  8. State the reactants and the products for photosynthesis and indicate which are oxidized and which are reduced.

Autotrophs are organisms that are able to synthesize organic molecules from inorganic materials. Photoautotrophs absorb and convert light energy into the stored energy of chemical bonds in organic molecules through a process called photosynthesis.

Plants, algae, and bacteria known as cyanobacteria are known as oxygenic photoautotrophs because they synthesize organic molecules from inorganic materials, convert light energy into chemical energy, use water as an electron source, and generate oxygen as an end product of photosynthesis. Some bacteria, such as the green and purple bacteria, are known as anoxygenic phototrophs . Unlike the oxygenic plants, algae, and cyanobacteria, anoxygenic phototrophs do not use water as an electron source and, therefore, do not evolve oxygen during photosynthesis. The electrons come from compounds such as hydrogen gas, hydrogen sulfide, and reduced organic molecules. In this section on photosynthesis, we be concerned with the oxygenic phototrophs.

There are three major groups of photosynthetic bacteria: cyanobacteria, purple bacteria, and green bacteria.

1. The cyanobacteria carry out oxygenic photosynthesis, that is, they use water as an electron donor and generate oxygen during photosynthesis. The photosynthetic system is located in an extensive thylakoid membrane system that is lined with particles called phycobilisomes.

    

Cyanobacteria, as well as algae and green plants, use hydrogen atoms from water to reduce carbon dioxide to form carbohydrates, and during this process oxygen gas is given off (an oxygenic process). Cyanobacteria were the first organisms on earth to carry out oxygenic photosynthesis. (left) Anabaena flosaquae and (right) Oscillatoria princeps. Images used with permission (Anabaena is Public domain from the US Environmental Protection Agenca and Oscillatoria is CC BY-SA 3.0; Kristian Peters).

2. The green bacteria carry out anoxygenic photosynthesis. They use reduced molecules such as H2, H2S, S, and organic molecules as an electron source and generate NADH and NADPH. The photosynthetic system is located in ellipsoidal vesicles called chlorosomes that are independent of the cytoplasmic membrane.

3. The purple bacteria carry out anoxygenic photosynthesis. They use reduced molecules such as H2, H2S, S, and organic molecules as an electron source and generate NADH and NADPH. The photosynthetic system is located in spherical or lamellar membrane systems that are continuous with the cytoplasmic membrane.

In this section we will concentrate on oxygenic photosynthesis. Oxygenic photosynthesis is composed of two stages: the light-dependent reactions and the light-independent reactions.

1. The light-dependent reactions convert light energy into chemical energy, producing ATP and NADPH.

2. The light-independent reactions use the ATP and NADPH from the light-dependent reactions to reduce carbon dioxide and convert the energy to the chemical bond energy in carbohydrates such as glucose. Before we get to these photosynthetic reactions however, we need to understand a little about the electromagnetic spectrum and chloroplasts.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Visible light constitutes a very small portion of a spectrum of radiation known as the electromagnetic spectrum. All radiations in the electromagnetic spectrum travel in waves and different portions of the spectrum are categorized by their wavelength. A wavelength is the distance from the peak of one wave to that of the next. At one end of the spectrum are television and radio waves with longer wavelengths and low energy. At the other end of the spectrum are gamma rays with a very short wavelength and a great deal of energy. Visible light is the range of wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that humans can see, a mixture of wavelengths ranging from 380 nanometers to 760 nanometers. It is this light that is used in photosynthesis.

Light and other types of radiation are composed of individual packets of energy called photons . The shorter the wavelength of the radiation, the greater the energy per photon. As will be seen shortly, when photons of visible light energy strike certain atoms of pigments during photosynthesis, that energy may push an electron from that atom to a higher energy level where it can be picked up by an electron acceptor in an electron transport chain (Figure 1). ATP can then be generated by chemiosmosis.

Photons Exciting an Electron to a Higher Energy Level. When photons of visible light energy strike certain atoms of pigments during photosynthesis, that energy may push an electron from that atom to a higher energy level where it can be picked up by an electron acceptor in an electron transport chain.

Chloroplasts

In eukaryotic cells, photosynthesis takes place in organelles called chloroplasts (Figure 2). Like mitochondria, chloroplasts are surrounded by an inner and an outer membrane. The inner membrane encloses a fluid-filled region called the stroma that contains enzymes for the light-independent reactions of photosynthesis. Infolding of this inner membrane forms interconnected stacks of disk-like sacs called thylakoids, often arranged in stacks called grana. The thylakoid membrane, which encloses a fluid-filled thylakoid interior space, contains chlorophyll and other photosynthetic pigments as well as electron transport chains. The light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis occur in the thylakoids. The outer membrane of the chloroplast encloses the intermembrane space between the inner and outer chloroplast membranes (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Chloroplasts. Chloroplasts are surrounded by an inner and an outer membraneThe inner membrane encloses a fluid-filled region called the stroma that contains enzymes for the light-independent reactions of photosynthesis. Infolding of this inner membrane forms interconnected stacks of disk-like sacs called thylakoids, often arranged in stacks called grana. The thylakoid membrane, which encloses a fluid-filled thylakoid interior space, contains chlorophyll and other photosynthetic pigments as well as electron transport chains. The light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis occur in the thylakoids. The outer membrane of the chloroplast encloses the intermembrane space between the inner and outer chloroplast membranes. Image used with permission (CC BY 3.0; Kelvinsong).

The thylakoid membranes contain several pigments capable of absorbing visible light. Chlorophyll is the primary pigment of photosynthesis. Chlorophyll absorbs light in the blue and red region of the visible light spectrum and reflects green light. There are two major types of chlorophyll, chlorophyll a that initiates the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis, and chlorophyll b, an accessory pigment that also participates in photosynthesis. The thylakoid membranes also contain other accessory pigments. Carotenoids are pigments that absorb blue and green light and reflect yellow, orange, or red. Phycocyanins absorb green and yellow light and reflect blue or purple. These accessory pigments absorb light energy and transfer it to chlorophyll.

Photosynthetic prokaryotic cells do not possess chloroplasts. Instead, thylakoid membranes are usually arranged around the periphery of the bacterium as infoldings of the cytoplasmic membrane.

Photosynthesis

As mentioned above, photoautotrophs use sunlight as a source of energy and through the process of photosynthesis, reduce carbon dioxide to form carbohydrates such as glucose. The radiant energy is converted to the chemical bond energy within glucose and other organic molecules.

The overall reaction for photosynthesis is as follows:

6 CO2 + 12 H2O in the presence of light and chlorophyll yields C6H12O6 + 6 O2 + 6 H2O

Note that carbon dioxide (CO2) is reduced to produce glucose (C6H12O6 ) while water (H2O) is oxidized to produce oxygen (O2).

Summary

  1. Autotrophs are organisms that are able to synthesize organic molecules from inorganic materials.
  2. Photoautotrophs absorb and convert light energy into the stored energy of chemical bonds in organic molecules through a process called photosynthesis.
  3. Plants, algae, and cyanobacteria are known as oxygenic photoautotrophs because they synthesize organic molecules from inorganic materials, convert light energy into chemical energy, use water as an electron source, and generate oxygen as an end product of photosynthesis.
  4. Green and purple bacteria, are known as anoxygenic phototrophs that do not use water as an electron source and, therefore, do not evolve oxygen during photosynthesis. The electrons come from compounds such as hydrogen gas, hydrogen sulfide, and reduced organic molecules.
  5. Oxygenic photosynthesis is composed of two stages: the light-dependent reactions and the light-independent reactions.
  6. The light-dependent reactions convert light energy into chemical energy, producing ATP and NADPH.
  7. The light-independent reactions use the ATP and NADPH from the light-dependent reactions to reduce carbon dioxide and convert the energy to the chemical bond energy in carbohydrates such as glucose.
  8. Light and other types of radiation are composed of individual packets of energy called photons. When photons of visible light energy strike certain atoms of pigments during photosynthesis, that energy may push an electron from that atom to a higher energy level where it can be picked up by an electron acceptor in an electron transport chain.
  9. In eukaryotic cells, photosynthesis takes place in organelles called chloroplasts.
  10. The inner membrane of a chloroplast encloses a fluid-filled region called the stroma that contains enzymes for the light-independent reactions of photosynthesis.
  11. Infolding of this inner membrane forms interconnected stacks of disk-like sacs called thylakoids. The thylakoid membrane, which encloses a fluid-filled thylakoid interior space, contains chlorophyll and other photosynthetic pigments as well as electron transport chains. The light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis occur in the thylakoids.
  12. The overall reaction for photosynthesis is as follows: 6 CO2 + 12 H2O in the presence of light and chlorophyll yields C6H12O6 + 6 O2 + 6 H2O.

Contributors

  • Dr. Gary Kaiser (COMMUNITY COLLEGE OF BALTIMORE COUNTY, CATONSVILLE CAMPUS)