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.

Importance of Photosynthesis

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.

Photo a shows a fern leaf. Photo b shows thick, green algae growing on water. Micrograph c shows cyanobacteria, which are green rods about 10 microns long. Photo D shows black smoke pouring out of a deep sea vent covered with red worms. Micrograph E shows rod-shaped bacteria about 1.5 microns long.
Figure 8.2  Photoautotrophs including (a) plants, (b) algae, and (c) cyanobacteria synthesize their organic compounds via photosynthesis using sunlight as an energy source. Cyanobacteria and planktonic algae can grow over enormous areas in water, at times completely covering the surface. In a (d) deep sea vent, chemoautotrophs, such as these (e) thermophilic bacteria, capture energy from inorganic compounds to produce organic compounds. The ecosystem surrounding the vents has a diverse array of animals, such as tubeworms, crustaceans, and octopi that derive energy from the bacteria. (credit a: modification of work by Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; credit b: modification of work by "eutrophication&hypoxia"/Flickr; credit c: modification of work by NASA; credit d: University of Washington, NOAA; credit e: modification of work by Mark Amend, West Coast and Polar Regions Undersea Research Center, UAF, NOAA)

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.

A photo shows deer running through tall grass beside a forest.
Figure 8.3  The energy stored in carbohydrate molecules from photosynthesis passes through the food chain. The predator that eats these deer receives a portion of the energy that originated in the photosynthetic vegetation that the deer consumed. (credit: modification of work by Steve VanRiper, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)



  • 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?

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 (GA3P), 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.

Photo of a tree. Arrows indicate that the tree uses carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to make sugars and oxygen.
Figure 8.4  Photosynthesis uses solar energy, carbon dioxide, and water to produce energy-storing carbohydrates. Oxygen is generated as a waste product of photosynthesis.

The following is the chemical equation for photosynthesis (Figure 8.5):

The photosynthesis equation is shown. According to this equation, six carbon dioxide and six water molecules produce one sugar molecule and six oxygen molecules. The sugar molecule is made of six carbons, twelve hydrogens, and six oxygens. Sunlight is used as an energy source.
Figure 8.5  The basic equation for photosynthesis is deceptively simple. In reality, the process takes place in many steps involving intermediate reactants and products. Glucose, the primary energy source in cells, is made from two three-carbon GA3Ps.

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).


This illustration shows a chloroplast, which has an outer membrane and an inner membrane. The space between the outer and inner membranes is called the intermembrane space. Inside the inner membrane are flat, pancake-like structures called thylakoids. The thylakoids form stacks called grana. The liquid inside the inner membrane is called the stroma, and the space inside the thylakoid is called the thylakoid lumen.
Figure 8.6  Photosynthesis takes place in chloroplasts, which have an outer membrane and an inner membrane. Stacks of thylakoids called grana form a third membrane layer.
On a hot, dry day, plants close their stomata to conserve water. What impact will this have on photosynthesis?
  1. Rate of photosynthesis will be inhibited as the level of carbon dioxide decreases.
  2. Rate of photosynthesis will be inhibited as the level of oxygen decreases.
  3. The rate of photosynthesis will increase as the level of carbon dioxide increases.
  4. Rate of photosynthesis will increase as the level of oxygen increases.

 The Two Parts of Photosynthesis

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.

This illustration shows a chloroplast with an outer membrane, an inner membrane, and stacks of membranes inside the inner membrane called thylakoids. The entire stack is called a granum. In the light reactions, energy from sunlight is converted into chemical energy in the form of ATP and NADPH. In the process, water is used and oxygen is produced. Energy from ATP and NADPH are used to power the Calvin cycle, which produces GA3P from carbon dioxide. ATP is broken down to ADP and Pi, and NADPH is oxidized to NADP+. The cycle is completed when the light reactions convert these molecules back into ATP and NADPH.
Figure 8.7  Photosynthesis takes place in two stages: light dependent reactions and the Calvin cycle. Light-dependent reactions, which take place in the thylakoid membrane, use light energy to make ATP and NADPH. The Calvin cycle, which takes place in the stroma, uses energy derived from these compounds to make GA3P from CO2.


Click the link to learn more about photosynthesis.

Explain how the light reactions and light independent reactions (Calvin cycle) of photosynthesis are interdependent on each other.
  1. The light reactions produces ATP and NADPH, which are then used in the Calvin cycle.
  2. The light reactions produces NADP+ and ADP, which are then used in the Calvin cycle.
  3. The light reactions uses NADPH and ATP, which are produced by the Calvin cycle.
  4. The light reactions produce only NADPH, which is produced by the Calvin cycle.


Photosynthesis at the Grocery Store

A photo shows people shopping in a grocery store.
Figure 8.8  Foods that humans consume originate from photosynthesis. (credit: Associação Brasileira de Supermercados)

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.

Where would photosynthetic organisms likely be placed on a food web within most ecosystems?
  1. at the base
  2. near the top
  3. in the middle, but generally closer to the top
  4. in the middle, but generally closer to the base