In this section, you will explore the following questions:
- What is the relevance of photosynthesis to living organisms?
- What are the main cellular structures involved in photosynthesis?
- What are the substrates and products of photosynthesis?
Connection for AP® Courses
As we learned in Chapter 7, all living organisms, from simple bacteria to complex plants and animals, require free energy to carry out cellular processes, such as growth and reproduction. Organisms use various strategies to capture, store, transform, and transfer free energy, including photosynthesis. Photosynthesis allows organisms to access enormous amounts of free energy from the sun and transform it to the chemical energy of sugars. Although all organisms carry out some form of cellular respiration, only certain organisms, called photoautotrophs, can perform photosynthesis. Examples of photoautotrophs include plants, algae, some unicellular eukaryotes, and cyanobacteria. They require the presence of chlorophyll, a specialized pigment that absorbs certain wavelengths of the visible light spectrum to harness free energy from the sun. Photosynthesis is a process where components of water and carbon dioxide are used to assemble carbohydrate molecules and where oxygen waste products are released into the atmosphere. In eukaryotes, the reactions of photosynthesis occur in chloroplasts; in prokaryotes, such as cyanobacteria, the reactions are less localized and occur within membranes and in the cytoplasm. (The structural features of the chloroplast that participate in photosynthesis will be explored in more detail later in The Light-Dependent Reactions of Photosynthesis and Using Light Energy to Make Organic Molecules.) Although photosynthesis and cellular respiration evolved as independent processes—with photosynthesis creating an oxidizing atmosphere early in Earth’s history—today they are interdependent. As we studied in Cellular Respiration, aerobic cellular respiration taps into the oxidizing ability of oxygen to synthesize the organic compounds that are used to power cellular processes.
Information presented and the examples highlighted in the section support concepts and learning objectives outlined in Big Idea 1 and Big Idea 2 of the AP® Biology Curriculum Framework, as shown in the table. The learning objectives listed in the Curriculum Framework provide a transparent foundation for the AP® Biology course, an inquiry-based laboratory experience, instructional activities, and AP® exam questions. A learning objective merges required content with one or more of the seven science practices.
|Big Idea 1||The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.|
|Enduring Understanding 1.B||Organisms are linked by lines of descent from common ancestry.|
|Essential Knowledge||1.B.1 Structural and functional evidence supports the relatedness of all domains, with organisms shared many conserved core processes.|
|Science Practice||6.1 The student can justify claims with evidence.|
|Learning Objective||1.15 The student is able to describe specific examples of conserved core biological processes and features shared by all domains s or within one domain of life, and how these shared, conserved core processes and features support the concept of common ancestry for all organisms.|
|Big Idea 2||Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce, and to maintain dynamic homeostasis.|
|Enduring Understanding 2.A||Growth, reproduction and maintenance of living systems require free energy and matter.|
|Essential Knowledge||2.A.2 Organisms use various strategies to capture and store free energy for use in biological processes.|
|Science Practice||1.4 The student can use representations and models to analyze situations or solve problems qualitatively and quantitatively.|
|Science Practice||3.1 The student can pose scientific questions.|
|Learning Objective||2.4 The student is able to use representations to pose scientific questions about what mechanisms and structural features allow organisms to capture, store, and use free energy.|
|Essential Knowledge||2.A.2 Organisms use various strategies to capture and store free energy for use in biological processes.|
|Science Practice||6.2 The student can construct explanations of phenomena based on evidence produced through scientific practices.|
|Learning Objective||2.5 The student is able to construct explanations of the mechanisms and structural features of cells that allow organisms to capture, store, or use free energy.|
Use this first part of the chapter to present an overview that will be filled out and completed in the later two portions. This will introduce the students to the biochemistry that they need to know and give them a chance to build up their understanding of the material.
Importance of Photosynthesis
Use this section to stress the importance of the interdependence between different species and the role played by photosynthesis in bringing energy to the living organisms. A number of terms, such as photoautotroph, heterotrophy, and chemoautotroph will be introduced here.
Photosynthesis is essential to all life on earth; both plants and animals depend on it. It is the only biological process that can capture energy that originates in outer space (sunlight) and convert it into chemical compounds (carbohydrates) that every organism uses to power its metabolism. In brief, the energy of sunlight is captured and used to energize electrons, whose energy is then stored in the covalent bonds of sugar molecules. How long lasting and stable are those covalent bonds? The energy extracted today by the burning of coal and petroleum products represents sunlight energy captured and stored by photosynthesis almost 200 million years ago.
Plants, algae, and a group of bacteria called cyanobacteria are the only organisms capable of performing photosynthesis (Figure 8.2). Because they use light to manufacture their own food, they are called photoautotrophs (literally, “self-feeders using light”). Other organisms, such as animals, fungi, and most other bacteria, are termed heterotrophs (“other feeders”), because they must rely on the sugars produced by photosynthetic organisms for their energy needs. A third very interesting group of bacteria synthesize sugars, not by using sunlight’s energy, but by extracting energy from inorganic chemical compounds; hence, they are referred to as chemoautotrophs.
The importance of photosynthesis is not just that it can capture sunlight’s energy. A lizard sunning itself on a cold day can use the sun’s energy to warm up. Photosynthesis is vital because it evolved as a way to store the energy in solar radiation (the “photo-” part) as energy in the carbon-carbon bonds of carbohydrate molecules (the “-synthesis” part). Those carbohydrates are the energy source that heterotrophs use to power the synthesis of ATP via respiration. Therefore, photosynthesis powers 99 percent of Earth’s ecosystems. When a top predator, such as a wolf, preys on a deer (Figure 8.3), the wolf is at the end of an energy path that went from nuclear reactions on the surface of the sun, to light, to photosynthesis, to vegetation, to deer, and finally to wolf.
- Why do scientists think that photosynthesis evolved before aerobic cellular respiration?
- Why do carnivores, such as lions, depend on photosynthesis to survive? What evidence supports the claim that photosynthesis and cellular respiration are interdependent processes?
- The first Think About It question is an application of Learning Objective 1.15 and Science Practice 7.2 because students are describing the evolution of two energy-procuring processes that today are present in different organisms.
- The second Think About It question is an application of Learning Objective 2.5 and Science Practice 6.2 because you are explaining how the interdependent processes of photosynthesis and cellular respiration allow organisms to capture, store, and use free energy.
- Aerobic cellular respiration requires free oxygen, which was not available in the Earth’s atmosphere until photosynthetic organisms produced enough oxygen as waste to support developing aerobic respiration.
- Carnivores at the top of the food chain eat herbivores that eat photoautotrophs. So no matter where you are in the food chain, every species depends on photosynthesis to convert light energy to chemical energy. In ecosystems that lack photosynthetic organisms (such as by forests burned by forest fire), organisms on all levels of the food chain die off.
The structures, substrates and products of photosynthesis are introduced in this section. Remind them that Figure 8.5 can also be read from right to left, if cellular respiration is the subject. This should help the students to connect the two pathways of photosynthesis and cellular respiration.
Obtain diagrams of leaf structures to illustrate the content of this section. Try to bring in some leaves for students to look at. They have all seen lots of leaves, but probably never examined them for structural detail. A simple magnifying glass should allow them to see the inner structures discussed in this section.
Main Structures and Summary of Photosynthesis
Photosynthesis is a multi-step process that requires sunlight, carbon dioxide (which is low in energy), and water as substrates (Figure 8.4). After the process is complete, it releases oxygen and produces glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate (G3P), simple carbohydrate molecules (which are high in energy) that can subsequently be converted into glucose, sucrose, or any of dozens of other sugar molecules. These sugar molecules contain energy and the energized carbon that all living things need to survive.
The following is the chemical equation for photosynthesis (Figure 8.5):
Although the equation looks simple, the many steps that take place during photosynthesis are actually quite complex. Before learning the details of how photoautotrophs turn sunlight into food, it is important to become familiar with the structures involved.
In plants, photosynthesis generally takes place in leaves, which consist of several layers of cells. The process of photosynthesis occurs in a middle layer called the mesophyll. The gas exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen occurs through small, regulated openings called stomata (singular: stoma), which also play roles in the regulation of gas exchange and water balance. The stomata are typically located on the underside of the leaf, which helps to minimize water loss. Each stoma is flanked by guard cells that regulate the opening and closing of the stomata by swelling or shrinking in response to osmotic changes.
In all autotrophic eukaryotes, photosynthesis takes place inside an organelle called a chloroplast. For plants, chloroplast-containing cells exist in the mesophyll. Chloroplasts have a double membrane envelope (composed of an outer membrane and an inner membrane). Within the chloroplast are stacked, disc-shaped structures called thylakoids. Embedded in the thylakoid membrane is chlorophyll, a pigment (molecule that absorbs light) responsible for the initial interaction between light and plant material, and numerous proteins that make up the electron transport chain. The thylakoid membrane encloses an internal space called the thylakoid lumen. As shown in Figure 8.6, a stack of thylakoids is called a granum, and the liquid-filled space surrounding the granum is called stroma or “bed” (not to be confused with stoma or “mouth,” an opening on the leaf epidermis).
The Two Parts of Photosynthesis
There are different terms that have been used for these reactions. Go over each pair of terms and discuss how they apply to the pathways.
Photosynthesis takes place in two sequential stages: the light-dependent reactions and the light independent-reactions. In the light-dependent reactions, energy from sunlight is absorbed by chlorophyll and that energy is converted into stored chemical energy. In the light-independent reactions, the chemical energy harvested during the light-dependent reactions drives the assembly of sugar molecules from carbon dioxide. Therefore, although the light-independent reactions do not use light as a reactant, they require the products of the light-dependent reactions to function. In addition, several enzymes of the light-independent reactions are activated by light. The light-dependent reactions utilize certain molecules to temporarily store the energy: These are referred to as energy carriers. The energy carriers that move energy from light-dependent reactions to light-independent reactions can be thought of as “full” because they are rich in energy. After the energy is released, the “empty” energy carriers return to the light-dependent reaction to obtain more energy. Figure 8.7 illustrates the components inside the chloroplast where the light-dependent and light-independent reactions take place.
Click the link to learn more about photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis at the Grocery Store
Major grocery stores in the United States are organized into departments, such as dairy, meats, produce, bread, cereals, and so forth. Each aisle (Figure 8.8) contains hundreds, if not thousands, of different products for customers to buy and consume.
Although there is a large variety, each item links back to photosynthesis. Meats and dairy link, because the animals were fed plant-based foods. The breads, cereals, and pastas come largely from starchy grains, which are the seeds of photosynthesis-dependent plants. What about desserts and drinks? All of these products contain sugar—sucrose is a plant product, a disaccharide, a carbohydrate molecule, which is built directly from photosynthesis. Moreover, many items are less obviously derived from plants: For instance, paper goods are generally plant products, and many plastics (abundant as products and packaging) are derived from algae. Virtually every spice and flavoring in the spice aisle was produced by a plant as a leaf, root, bark, flower, fruit, or stem. Ultimately, photosynthesis connects to every meal and every food a person consumes.