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Definition: photosynthesis from Dictionary of Energy

Biological Energetics. the fundamental chemical process in which green plants (and certain other organisms) utilize the energy of sunlight or other light to convert carbon dioxide and water into organic chemical energy. Photosynthesis is often described as the most important chemical reaction on earth. See below.


Summary Article: Photosynthesis
from Encyclopedia of Time: Science, Philosophy, Theology, & Culture

Photosynthesis is the process by which organisms convert light energy into chemical energy in the form of carbohydrates. The inputs of the chemical reaction are light energy, carbon dioxide, and water; the outputs are carbohydrates and oxygen. The overall reaction, which has many intermediate steps, is written as follows:

Light energy + C02 + H20 → (CH20) + 02

The sun is the main source of light for the process. Photosynthetic organisms break down the bonds in the resulting carbohydrates to obtain the necessary energy for life-sustaining functions. Plants, algae, and some bacteria are the known organisms capable of photosynthetic activity. They all produce pigments, specialized proteins that capture energy when exposed to light. Numerous photosynthetic organisms have developed adaptations to regulate the timing of photosynthesis. By lengthening the time spent in photosynthesis per day or changing the time of day when photosynthesis occurs, organisms improve the efficiency of photosynthesis and their ability to survive.

Locations and Functions of Pigments

The location of pigments in photosynthetic organisms depends on whether the organism is prokary-otic (does not have a cell nucleus or organelles) or eukaryotic (has cell nucleus and organelles). The prokaryote Halobacterium halobium and other photosynthetic bacteria have pigments embedded in their cell membranes. Prokaryotic blue-green alga has pigment proteins inserted in a more complicated system of stacked membranes interior to the cell wall. Higher plants, such as needle-leaved plants and flowering plants, have a specialized organelle for photosynthesis within the plant cell, the chloroplast. The double-membraned organelle contains photosynthetic membranes that are embedded most commonly with the pigments, chlorophyll-a and chlorophyll-b.

Pigments are essential to photosynthesis, because they can absorb energy from photons, the units of light energy. Each pigment absorbs a characteristic wavelength, which is a stream of photons. For example, chlorophyll-a absorbs wavelengths in the range between 550 and 700 nanometers (nm, 1 × 10∼9meter), and bacteriochlorophyll-a in bacteria absorbs wavelengths between 470 and 750 nanometers.

Pigments efficiently absorb energy because they contain chemical bonds that accommodate fluctuating levels of energy. The characteristic carbon rings in pigments include many double bonds. Carbon atoms joined by double bonds share their electrons; thus the electrons are not strongly attracted to a particular carbon nucleus and move in a loose cloud around the entire molecule. When photons strike a pigment, their energy is accepted by the pigment's electrons, which can easily move from a lower energy level to a higher one in the cloud of electrons. Chlorophyll-a has five carbon rings with a total of 10 double bonds, making it an excellent acceptor of energy from light. The pigment can either donate the energized electrons to other molecules or release the energy from the electrons as longer wavelengths than those the pigment absorbed.

Structures in Photosynthesis

Organisms have structures in their photosynthetic membranes called reaction centers and antennae, respectively, both of which are necessary for photosynthesis to occur. The reaction center is composed of the unique pigments capable of initiating the chemical reactions of photosynthesis by donating electrons to molecules within cells; the pigments are bacteriochlorophyll-α in bacteria and chlorophyll-a in algae and plants. Scientists have identified special forms of these chlorophylls that are responsible for the actual work of changing light energy into chemical energy in the reaction centers. The chlorophylls are P870 in bacteria and P700 and P680 in algae and plants, where P stands for pigment and the number refers to an absorption wavelength. However, the specialized chlorophylls cannot absorb enough light energy on their own to drive photosynthesis; they are fed energy by the antennae.

The antenna structure in membranes is the locus of light energy absorption and concentration. It is composed of accessory pigments that generally can absorb shorter wavelengths than P680, P700, and P870 can. Examples of accessory pigments are bacteriochlorophyll-b (absorbs 400 nm-1020 nm wavelengths) in purple bacteria and chlorophyll-è (absorbs 454 nm-670 nm wavelengths) in higher plants. Accessory pigments capture light energy and then release it to other accessory pigments or chlorophylls in the antennae as longer wavelengths, but these accessory pigments are not capable of donating electrons to other molecules. The accessory pigments pass along longer wavelengths to each other until the waves reach a length that can be absorbed by the specialized chlorophylls in the reaction center.

A substantial number of accessory pigment proteins are needed to feed a reaction center with enough light energy to drive photosynthesis. Over 300 molecules of chlorophyll-a are needed to funnel enough light energy to activate one molecule of chlorophyll-α in the reaction center of a typical higher plant.

Adaptations in Photosynthesis

Photosynthetic organisms are capable of making photosynthesis more efficient by regulating the time spent in photosynthesis per day or changing the time of day when photosynthesis occurs. Some higher plants can change their leaf position over the course of a day to track the sun's movement. This adaptation allows the plants to increase the number of hours per day spent in direct sunlight and maximum light absorption. Experiments have confirmed that this behavior, called diabeliotropism, increases the efficiency of photosynthesis.

Plants that live in hot, dry climates, such as cacti, have developed an adaptation of photosynthesis that allows parts of the process to occur at a different time of day than in the majority of plants. Generally, all steps of photosynthesis occur during daylight, including the intake of carbon dioxide through stomata, which are openings in the leaves of plants. The majority of plants take in carbon dioxide and initially fix the carbon into a compound called 3-phosphoglycerate. However, plants in hot, arid regions lose water at a high rate when the stomata are open, so many have developed cras-sulacean acid metabolism (CAM) to avoid dehydration. CAM plants open their stomata only at night, initially fix carbon dioxide into malic acid, and then store the acid. During the day, CAM plants close their stomata, break down the malic acid to release the carbon dioxide, and then proceed with photosynthesis. The CAM adaptation makes it possible for plants to withstand long periods of drought.

See also

Chemical Reactions, Chemistry, Ecology, Global Warming, Seasons, Change of, Trees


  • Das, V. S. R. ( (2004).). Photosynthesis: Regulation under varying light regimes. Enfield, NH: Science Publishers.
  • Heldt, H.-W. ( (2005).). Plant biochemistry (3rd ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic Press.
  • Lawlor, D. W. ( (2004).). Photosynthesis (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Taylor and Francis.
  • O'Toole, Erin M.
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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