What Is Photosynthesis?
Photosynthesis is the process by which green plants make food for themselves-and, indirectly, for all animals, including human beings. In photosynthesis plants combine water and salts in the soil, and carbon dioxide in the air to build up organic compounds, such as sugar starch and proteins. To do this they use the energy of sunlight, which is absorbed with the help of the green dye in their leaves called chlorophyll.
This process of manufacturing food from what they absorb through their roots and leaves makes green plants the primary food producers in the world. All animals draw their nourishment from them, either by feeding on plants themselves or by eating other animals that do so. During photosynthesis, which takes place only in daylight, excess oxygen is produced and released into the atmosphere for animals to breathe.
After the Second World War, the American scientist Melvin Calvin wrote a book about how plants capture the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In 1961 he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in recognition of his work.
Although photosynthesis is performed differently by different species, the process always begins when energy from light is absorbed by proteins called reaction centres that contain green chlorophyll pigments. In plants, these proteins are held inside organelles called chloroplasts, which are most abundant in leaf cells, while in bacteria they are embedded in the plasma membrane.
In these light-dependent reactions, some energy is used to strip electrons from suitable substances, such as water, producing oxygen gas. The hydrogen freed by the splitting of water is used in the creation of two further compounds that act as an immediate energy storage means: reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH) and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the “energy currency” of cells.
In plants, algae and cyanobacteria, long-term energy storage in the form of sugars is produced by a subsequent sequence of light-independent reactions called the Calvin cycle; some bacteria use different mechanisms, such as the reverse Krebs cycle, to achieve the same end.
In the Calvin cycle, atmospheric carbon dioxide is incorporated into already existing organic carbon compounds, such as ribulose bisphosphate (RuBP). Using the ATP and NADPH produced by the light-dependent reactions, the resulting compounds are then reduced and removed to form further carbohydrates, such as glucose.
The first photosynthetic organisms probably evolved early in the evolutionary history of life and most likely used reducing agents such as hydrogen or hydrogen sulfide, rather than water, as sources of electrons. Cyanobacteria appeared later; the excess oxygen they produced contributed directly to the oxygenation of the Earth, which rendered the evolution of complex life possible.
Today, the average rate of energy capture by photosynthesis globally is approximately 130 terawatts, which is about three times the current power consumption of human civilization. Photosynthetic organisms also convert around 100–115 thousand million metric tonnes of carbon into biomass per year.