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This page introduces the process of photosynthesis, one of the most important biological processes on Earth.
Photosynthesis is the process by which plants, algae (and certain types of bacteria) use sunlight to convert inorganic components (mostly carbon dioxide and water) into sugar molecules.
Photosynthesis is at the start of 99% of the food chains on Earth and plant materials are used in many other ways, such as fuel and as building materials. These carbohydrate molecules, such as sugars, contain more energy than the starting molecules, in other words they act as chemical batteries for solar energy. To release stored energy, both plants and animals use oxygen from the atmosphere to convert carbohydrates back into CO2 and H2O.
Leaves are the structures in plants that have evolved primarily to absorb sunlight and to convert this energy into carbohydrates. Photosynthesis takes place within chloroplasts (figures 2 and 3) contained within the green cells of plants and algae (photosynthesizing bacteria have other, simpler structures). The chloroplast has a two membrane envelope termed the inner and outer membranes, with a space inbetween.
An example that shows the difference in energies of the colours of light is seen on older cars (automobiles). Photons with high enough energy can be absorbed by particular molecules in the plant, producing energised electrons.
The absorption of light in chloroplasts is by a range of pigments, mainly chlorophylls (which provide the green colour) and carotenoids. How much solar energy is absorbed by photosynthesis, or what percentage of sunlight falling on the Earth's surface is converted into plant matter?
Assuming the primary biomass production (plants) of Earth is 2 x 1011 tonnes per year, this equates to about 3 x 1021 J of energy stored as biomass. If plants could be made more efficient at converting light into plant matter than the productivity of the world's agriculture could be improved vastly.
The plant structures involved are described and also some of the molecules of particular relevance to our project. They then use these molecules to build further organic molecules that make the plants' structures, as well as providing chemical energy.


Many animals eat plants to obtain energy and matter, and in turn these animals are often eaten by others. The carbohydrate molecules are often then used to construct more complex molecules, such as cellulose and lignin, that make the plant structure.
Cross-section through a typical leaf illustrating types of cells and also the intracellular organelles called chloroplasts, where photosynthesis takes place. The nucleus contains the DNA of the cell that encodes the information that the cell needs to function. Energy levels of visible light expressed as Joules per mole of photons (a mole is 6.023 x 1023 particles or in this case, photons).
Red cars absorb the higher energy blue photons, but reflect the lower energy red photons, that's why the paint looks red. It is important to note that 1 photon can only supply its energy to 1 electron and also that photons with too low energy will not be used in photosynthesis.
A photosystem, showing the absorption of a photon by a pigment molecule and the transfer of this energy to the reaction centre. Light is absorbed at each of the photosystems to provide enough energy to manufacture carbohydrates (figure 7). A greatly simplified scheme showing the 2 photosystems and electron transport between them.
For instance around 10,000 tonnes of oxygen is consumed every second by respiration and the burning of fuels.
Ultimately the Sun provides all of the metabolic energy on planet Earth (except for some very small, specialised food chains in the deep oceans around hydrothermal vents). However the rate of photosynthesis is usually 30 times the rate of respiration, so plants produce large net quantities of oxygen that is then used by animals that in turn produce CO2 which feeds the plants, in a cycle. The cuticle is a waxy coating, layers of cells (epidermis, palisade and spongy mesophyll) and vascular bundles (xylem and phloem, which are specialised cells) that transport water and nutrient solution. Within the stroma are stacks of thylakoids, the sub-organelles where photosynthesis actually takes place.
This covers a range of rays or waves from cosmic rays, with very short wavelengths all the way to radio waves (figure 4).


The red photons have less energy than the blue photons, this explains why infrared light is relatively poorly used in photosynthesis. A large number of these pigment molecules are arranged into an antenna to capture most of the photons of the correct energy.
There are millions of these photosystems embedded in the thylakoid membranes within the chloroplasts.
Electrons flow from water, through the 2 photosystems and other molecular complexes and eventually enable carbohydrate formation, from CO2. For a general grounding in cell biology I recommend the book Molecular Biology of the Cell, (Alberts et al. If plants didn't balance this loss by their production, oxygen supplies in the atmosphere would only last about 3000 years. About half of this reaches the Earth's surface, the rest being reflected by the atmosphere and clouds. The reasons for this are complex, and range from the behaviour of light energy as it penetrates leaves, to limiting factors in the plant's environment e.g. In some situations it is more convenient to think of light as photons, and in others to treat it like waves. This energy is then passed through a chain of pigment molecules until it reaches a specialised molecular complex called the reaction centre. The reaction centre then ejects an electron, that is replaced by another from an electron donor molecule (not shown). This leaves 15% of the original sunlight available for absorption by plants (8.4 x 1023 J).



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