In this section, you will explore the following questions:

  • How do plants absorb energy from sunlight?
  • What are the differences between short and long wavelengths of light? What wavelengths are used in photosynthesis?
  • How and where does photosynthesis occur within a plant?

Connection for AP® Courses

Photosynthesis consists of two stages: the light-dependent reactions and the light-independent reactions or Calvin cycle. The light-dependent reactions occur when light is available. The overall equation for photosynthesis shows that is it a redox reaction; carbon dioxide is reduced and water is oxidized to produce oxygen:

Energy + 6CO2 + H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2

The light-dependent reactions occur in the thylakoid membranes of chloroplasts, whereas the Calvin cycle occurs in the stroma of chloroplasts. Embedded in the thylakoid membranes are two photosystems (PS I and PS II), which are complexes of pigments that capture solar energy. Chlorophylls a and b absorb violet, blue, and red wavelengths from the visible light spectrum and reflect green. The carotenoid pigments absorb violet-blue-green light and reflect yellow-to-orange light. Environmental factors such as day length and temperature influence which pigments predominant at certain times of the year. Although the two photosystems run simultaneously, it is easier to explore them separately. Let’s begin with photosystem II.

A photon of light strikes the antenna pigments of PS II to initiate photosynthesis. In the noncyclic pathway, PS II captures photons at a slightly higher energy level than PS I. (Remember that shorter wavelengths of light carry more energy.) The absorbed energy travels to the reaction center of the antenna pigment that contains chlorophyll a and boosts chlorophyll a electrons to a higher energy level. The electrons are accepted by a primary electron acceptor protein and then pass to the electron transport chain also embedded in the thylakoid membrane. The energy absorbed in PS II is enough to oxidize (split) water, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere; the electrons released from the oxidation of water replace the electrons that were boosted from the reaction center chlorophyll. As the electrons from the reaction center chlorophyll pass through the series of electron carrier proteins, hydrogen ions (H+) are pumped across the membrane via chemiosmosis into the interior of the thylakoid. (If this sounds familiar, it should. We studied chemiosmosis in our exploration of cellular respiration in Cellular Respiration.) This action builds up a high concentration of H+ ions, and as they flow through ATP synthase, molecules of ATP are formed. These molecules of ATP will be used to provide free energy for the synthesis of carbohydrate in the Calvin cycle, the second stage of photosynthesis. The electron transport chain connects PS II and PS I. Similar to the events occurring in PS II, this second photosystem absorbs a second photon of light, resulting in the formation of a molecule of NADPH from NADP+. The energy carried in NADPH also is used to power the chemical reactions of the Calvin cycle.

Information presented and the examples highlighted in the section support concepts and learning objectives outlined in 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 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 The light-independent reactions of photosynthesis in eukaryotes involve a series of reactions that capture free energy present in light.
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 The light-independent reactions of photosynthesis in eukaryotes involve a series of reactions that capture free energy present in light.
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.
Big Idea 4 Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties.
Enduring Understanding 4.A Interactions within biological systems lead to complex properties.
Essential Knowledge 4.A.2 Chloroplasts are specialized organelles that capture energy through photosynthesis.
Science Practice 6.4 The student can make claims and predictions about natural phenomena based on scientific theories and models.
Learning Objective 4.4 The student is able to make a prediction about the interactions of subcellular organelles.
Essential Knowledge 4.A.2 Chloroplasts are specialized organelles that capture energy through photosynthesis.
Science Practice 6.2 The student can construct explanations of phenomena based on evidence produced through scientific practices.
Learning Objective 4.5 The student is able to construct explanations based on scientific evidence as to how interactions of subcellular structures provide essential functions.
Essential Knowledge 4.A.2 Chloroplasts are specialized organelles that capture energy through photosynthesis.
Science Practice 1.4 The student can use representations and models to analyze situations or solve problems qualitatively and quantitatively.
Learning Objective 4.6 The student is able to use representations and models to analyze situations qualitatively to describe how interactions of subcellular structures, which possess specialized functions, provide essential functions.

The Science Practice Challenge Questions contain additional test questions for this section that will help you prepare for the AP exam. These questions address the following standards:
[APLO 2.5][APLO 2.16][APLO 2.18][APLO 1.9][APLO 1.32][APLO 4.14][APLO 2.2][APLO 2.3][APLO 2.23][APLO 1.15][APLO 1.29]

How can light be used to make food? When a person turns on a lamp, electrical energy becomes light energy. Like all other forms of kinetic energy, light can travel, change form, and be harnessed to do work. In the case of photosynthesis, light energy is converted into chemical energy, which photoautotrophs use to build carbohydrate molecules (Figure 8.9). However, autotrophs only use a few specific components of sunlight.

A photo shows the silhouette of a grassy plant against the sun at sunset.
Figure 8.9 Photoautotrophs can capture light energy from the sun, converting it into the chemical energy used to build food molecules. (credit: Gerry Atwell)

What Is Light Energy?

The sun emits an enormous amount of electromagnetic radiation (solar energy). Humans can see only a fraction of this energy, which portion is therefore referred to as “visible light.” The manner in which solar energy travels is described as waves. Scientists can determine the amount of energy of a wave by measuring its wavelength, the distance between consecutive points of a wave. A single wave is measured from two consecutive points, such as from crest to crest or from trough to trough (Figure 8.10).

The illustration shows two waves. The distance between the crests (or troughs) is the wavelength.
Figure 8.10  The wavelength of a single wave is the distance between two consecutive points of similar position (two crests or two troughs) along the wave.

Visible light constitutes only one of many types of electromagnetic radiation emitted from the sun and other stars. Scientists differentiate the various types of radiant energy from the sun within the electromagnetic spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of all possible frequencies of radiation (Figure 8.11). The difference between wavelengths relates to the amount of energy carried by them.

The illustration lists the types of electromagnetic radiation in order of increasing wavelength. These include gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and radio. Gamma rays have a very short wavelength, on the order of one thousandth of a nanometer. Radio waves have a very long wavelength, on the order of one kilometer. Visible light ranges from 380 nanometers at the violet end of the spectrum, to 750 nanometers at the red end of the spectrum.
Figure 8.11 The sun emits energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation exists at different wavelengths, each of which has its own characteristic energy. All electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, is characterized by its wavelength.

Each type of electromagnetic radiation travels at a particular wavelength. The longer the wavelength (or the more stretched out it appears in the diagram), the less energy is carried. Short, tight waves carry the most energy. This may seem illogical, but think of it in terms of a piece of moving a heavy rope. It takes little effort by a person to move a rope in long, wide waves. To make a rope move in short, tight waves, a person would need to apply significantly more energy.

The electromagnetic spectrum (Figure 8.11) shows several types of electromagnetic radiation originating from the sun, including X-rays and ultraviolet (UV) rays. The higher-energy waves can penetrate tissues and damage cells and DNA, explaining why both X-rays and UV rays can be harmful to living organisms.

Absorption of Light

Light energy initiates the process of photosynthesis when pigments absorb the light. Organic pigments, whether in the human retina or the chloroplast thylakoid, have a narrow range of energy levels that they can absorb. Energy levels lower than those represented by red light are insufficient to raise an orbital electron to a populatable, excited (quantum) state. Energy levels higher than those in blue light will physically tear the molecules apart, called bleaching. So retinal pigments can only “see” (absorb) 700 nm to 400 nm light, which is therefore called visible light. For the same reasons, plants pigment molecules absorb only light in the wavelength range of 700 nm to 400 nm; plant physiologists refer to this range for plants as photosynthetically active radiation.

The visible light seen by humans as white light actually exists in a rainbow of colors. Certain objects, such as a prism or a drop of water, disperse white light to reveal the colors to the human eye. The visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum shows the rainbow of colors, with violet and blue having shorter wavelengths, and therefore higher energy. At the other end of the spectrum toward red, the wavelengths are longer and have lower energy (Figure 8.12).

The illustration shows the colors of visible light. In order of decreasing wavelength, from 700 nanometers to 400 nanometers, these are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. 500 nanometers is about the thickness of a soap bubble membrane. Infrared has longer wavelengths than red light, and uv and X-rays have shorter wavelengths than violet light.
Figure 8.12  The colors of visible light do not carry the same amount of energy. Violet has the shortest wavelength and therefore carries the most energy, whereas red has the longest wavelength and carries the least amount of energy. (credit: modification of work by NASA)

Understanding Pigments

Different kinds of pigments exist, and each absorbs only certain wavelengths (colors) of visible light. Pigments reflect or transmit the wavelengths they cannot absorb, making them appear in the corresponding color.

Chlorophylls and carotenoids are the two major classes of photosynthetic pigments found in plants and algae; each class has multiple types of pigment molecules. There are five major chlorophylls: abc and d and a related molecule found in prokaryotes called bacteriochlorophyll. Chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b are found in higher plant chloroplasts and will be the focus of the following discussion.

With dozens of different forms, carotenoids are a much larger group of pigments. The carotenoids found in fruit—such as the red of tomato (lycopene), the yellow of corn seeds (zeaxanthin), or the orange of an orange peel (β-carotene)—are used as advertisements to attract seed dispersers. In photosynthesis, carotenoids function as photosynthetic pigments that are very efficient molecules for the disposal of excess energy. When a leaf is exposed to full sun, the light-dependent reactions are required to process an enormous amount of energy; if that energy is not handled properly, it can do significant damage. Therefore, many carotenoids reside in the thylakoid membrane, absorb excess energy, and safely dissipate that energy as heat.

Each type of pigment can be identified by the specific pattern of wavelengths it absorbs from visible light, which is the absorption spectrum. The graph in Figure 8.13 shows the absorption spectra for chlorophyll a, chlorophyll b, and a type of carotenoid pigment called β-carotene (which absorbs blue and green light). Notice how each pigment has a distinct set of peaks and troughs, revealing a highly specific pattern of absorption. Chlorophyll a absorbs wavelengths from either end of the visible spectrum (blue and red), but not green. Because green is reflected or transmitted, chlorophyll appears green. Carotenoids absorb in the short-wavelength blue region, and reflect the longer yellow, red, and orange wavelengths.

Chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b are made up of a long hydrocarbon chain attached to a large, complex ring made up of nitrogen and carbon. Magnesium is associated with the center of the ring. Chlorophyll b differs from chlorophyll a in that it has a CHO group instead of a CH3 group associated with one part of the ring. Beta-carotene is a branched hydrocarbon with a six-membered carbon ring at each end. Each chart shows the absorbance spectra for chlorophyll a, chlorophyll b, and β-carotene. The three pigments absorb blue-green and orange-red wavelengths of light but have slightly different spectra.
Figure 8.13  (a) Chlorophyll a, (b) chlorophyll b, and (c) β-carotene are hydrophobic organic pigments found in the thylakoid membrane. Chlorophyll a and b, which are identical except for the part indicated in the red box, are responsible for the green color of leaves. β-carotene is responsible for the orange color in carrots. Each pigment has (d) a unique absorbance spectrum.

Many photosynthetic organisms have a mixture of pigments; using them, the organism can absorb energy from a wider range of wavelengths. Not all photosynthetic organisms have full access to sunlight. Some organisms grow underwater where light intensity and quality decrease and change with depth. Other organisms grow in competition for light. Plants on the rainforest floor must be able to absorb any bit of light that comes through, because the taller trees absorb most of the sunlight and scatter the remaining solar radiation (Figure 8.14).

The photo shows undergrowth in a forest.
Figure 8.14  Plants that commonly grow in the shade have adapted to low levels of light by changing the relative concentrations of their chlorophyll pigments. (credit: Jason Hollinger)

When studying a photosynthetic organism, scientists can determine the types of pigments present by generating absorption spectra. An instrument called a spectrophotometer can differentiate which wavelengths of light a substance can absorb. Spectrophotometers measure transmitted light and compute from it the absorption. By extracting pigments from leaves and placing these samples into a spectrophotometer, scientists can identify which wavelengths of light an organism can absorb. Additional methods for the identification of plant pigments include various types of chromatography that separate the pigments by their relative affinities to solid and mobile phases.

How Light-Dependent Reactions Work

The overall function of light-dependent reactions is to convert solar energy into chemical energy in the form of NADPH and ATP. This chemical energy supports the light-independent reactions and fuels the assembly of sugar molecules. The light-dependent reactions are depicted in Figure 8.15. Protein complexes and pigment molecules work together to produce NADPH and ATP.

 Illustration a shows the structure of PSII, which is embedded in the thylakoid membrane. At the core of PSII is the reaction center. The reaction center is surrounded by the light-harvesting complex, which contains antenna pigment molecules that shunt light energy toward a pair of chlorophyll a molecules in the reaction center. As a result, an electron is excited and transferred to the primary electron acceptor. A water molecule is split, releasing two electrons which are used to replace excited electrons. Illustration b shows the structure of PSI, which is similar in structure to PSII. However, PSII uses an electron from the chloroplast electron transport chain also embedded in the thylakoid membrane to replace the excited electron.
Figure 8.15 A photosystem consists of a light-harvesting complex and a reaction center. Pigments in the light-harvesting complex pass light energy to two special chlorophyll a molecules in the reaction center. The light excites an electron from the chlorophyll a pair, which passes to the primary electron acceptor. The excited electron must then be replaced. In (a) photosystem II, the electron comes from the splitting of water, which releases oxygen as a waste product. In (b) photosystem I, the electron comes from the chloroplast electron transport chain discussed below

The actual step that converts light energy into chemical energy takes place in a multiprotein complex called a photosystem, two types of which are found embedded in the thylakoid membrane, photosystem II (PSII) and photosystem I (PSI) (Figure 8.16). The two complexes differ on the basis of what they oxidize (that is, the source of the low-energy electron supply) and what they reduce (the place to which they deliver their energized electrons).

Both photosystems have the same basic structure; a number of antenna proteins to which the chlorophyll molecules are bound surround the reaction center where the photochemistry takes place. Each photosystem is serviced by the light-harvesting complex, which passes energy from sunlight to the reaction center; it consists of multiple antenna proteins that contain a mixture of 300–400 chlorophyll a and b molecules as well as other pigments like carotenoids. The absorption of a single photon or distinct quantity or “packet” of light by any of the chlorophylls pushes that molecule into an excited state. In short, the light energy has now been captured by biological molecules but is not stored in any useful form yet. The energy is transferred from chlorophyll to chlorophyll until eventually (after about a millionth of a second), it is delivered to the reaction center. Up to this point, only energy has been transferred between molecules, not electrons.


This illustration shows the components involved in the light reactions, which are all embedded in the thylakoid membrane. Photosystem II uses light energy to strip electrons from water, producing half an oxygen molecule and two protons in the process. The excited electron is then passed through the chloroplast electron transport chain to photosystem I. Photosystem I passes the electron to NADP+ reductase, which uses it to convert NADP+ and a proton to NADPH. As the electron transport chain moves electrons, it pumps protons into the thylakoid lumen. The splitting of water also adds electrons to the lumen, and the reduction of NADPH removes protons from the stroma. The net result is a low pH inside the thylakoid lumen, and a high pH outside, in the stroma. ATP synthase embedded the thylakoid  membrane moves protons down their electrochemical gradient, from the lumen to the stroma, and uses the energy from this gradient to make ATP.
Figure 8.16 In the photosystem II (PSII) reaction center, energy from sunlight is used to extract electrons from water. The electrons travel through the chloroplast electron transport chain to photosystem I (PSI), which reduces NADP+ to NADPH. The electron transport chain moves protons across the thylakoid membrane into the lumen. At the same time, splitting of water adds protons to the lumen, and reduction of NADPH removes protons from the stroma. The net result is a low pH in the thylakoid lumen, and a high pH in the stroma. ATP synthase uses this electrochemical gradient to make ATP.
What is the external source of the electrons that ultimately pass through photosynthetic electron transport chains?
  1. carbon dioxide
  2. NADPH
  3. oxygen
  4. water

The reaction center contains a pair of chlorophyll a molecules with a special property. Those two chlorophylls can undergo oxidation upon excitation; they can actually give up an electron in a process called a photoact. It is at this step in the reaction center, this step in photosynthesis, that light energy is converted into an excited electron. All of the subsequent steps involve getting that electron onto the energy carrier NADPH for delivery to the Calvin cycle where the electron is deposited onto carbon for long-term storage in the form of a carbohydrate.PSII and PSI are two major components of the photosynthetic electron transport chain, which also includes the cytochrome complex. The cytochrome complex, an enzyme composed of two protein complexes, transfers the electrons from the carrier molecule plastoquinone (Pq) to the protein plastocyanin (Pc), thus enabling both the transfer of protons across the thylakoid membrane and the transfer of electrons from PSII to PSI.

The reaction center of PSII (called P680) delivers its high-energy electrons, one at the time, to the primary electron acceptor, and through the electron transport chain (Pq to cytochrome complex to plastocyanine) to PSI. P680’s missing electron is replaced by extracting a low-energy electron from water; thus, water is split and PSII is re-reduced after every photoact. Splitting one H2O molecule releases two electrons, two hydrogen atoms, and one atom of oxygen. Splitting two molecules is required to form one molecule of diatomic O2 gas. About 10 percent of the oxygen is used by mitochondria in the leaf to support oxidative phosphorylation. The remainder escapes to the atmosphere where it is used by aerobic organisms to support respiration.

As electrons move through the proteins that reside between PSII and PSI, they lose energy. That energy is used to move hydrogen atoms from the stromal side of the membrane to the thylakoid lumen. Those hydrogen atoms, plus the ones produced by splitting water, accumulate in the thylakoid lumen and will be used to synthesize ATP in a later step. Because the electrons have lost energy prior to their arrival at PSI, they must be re-energized by PSI, hence, another photon is absorbed by the PSI antenna. That energy is relayed to the PSI reaction center (called P700). P700 is oxidized and sends a high-energy electron to NADP+ to form NADPH. Thus, PSII captures the energy to create proton gradients to make ATP, and PSI captures the energy to reduce NADP+ into NADPH. The two photosystems work in concert, in part, to guarantee that the production of NADPH will roughly equal the production of ATP. Other mechanisms exist to fine tune that ratio to exactly match the chloroplast’s constantly changing energy needs.

Generating an Energy Carrier: ATP

As in the intermembrane space of the mitochondria during cellular respiration, the buildup of hydrogen ions inside the thylakoid lumen creates a concentration gradient. The passive diffusion of hydrogen ions from high concentration (in the thylakoid lumen) to low concentration (in the stroma) is harnessed to create ATP, just as in the electron transport chain of cellular respiration. The ions build up energy because of diffusion and because they all have the same electrical charge, repelling each other.

To release this energy, hydrogen ions will rush through any opening, similar to water jetting through a hole in a dam. In the thylakoid, that opening is a passage through a specialized protein channel called the ATP synthase. The energy released by the hydrogen ion stream allows ATP synthase to attach a third phosphate group to ADP, which forms a molecule of ATP (Figure 8.16). The flow of hydrogen ions through ATP synthase is called chemiosmosis because the ions move from an area of high to an area of low concentration through a semi-permeable structure.


Visit this site and click through the animation to view the process of photosynthesis within a leaf.

What role do electrons play in the formation of NADPH?
  1. Electrons from PS I cause the reduction of NADPH to NADP+.
  2. Electrons from PSII cause the reduction of NADP+ to NADPH.
  3. Electrons from PS I cause the reduction of NADP+ to NADPH.
  4. Electrons are gained which causes the oxidation of NADP+.


A leaf cross section illustration. A flat layer of rectangular cells make up the upper and lower epidermis, labelled 2 and 5 respectively. A cuticle layer protects the outside of both epidermal layers labelled 1. A stomatal pore, labelled 6, in the lower epidermis allows carbon dioxide to enter and oxygen to leave. Oval guard cells surround the pore, labelled 7. Sandwiched between the upper and lower epidermis is the mesophyll. The upper part of the mesophyll is comprised of columnar cells called palisade parenchyma, labelled 3. The lower part of the mesophyll is made up of loosely packed spongy parenchyma, labelled 4. A leaf vein is labelled 10. Inside the vein is the xylem, labelled 8, and the phloem, labelled 9.
Figure 8.17 The anatomy of a leaf. The cuticle and epidermis are the outer layers of the leaf and protect it from drying out. Chloroplasts are found in the mesophyll cells and are where photosynthesis occurs. Gas is exchanged through pores called stomata, which are opened and closed by the guard cells. Legend: 1) cuticle 2) upper epidermis 3) palisade mesophyll 4) spongy mesophyll 5) lower epidermis 6) stoma 7) guard cells 8) xylem 9) phloem 10) vascular bundle.
This figure shows a cross section of a leaf. Label 1 points to the thin, topmost layer of the leaf. Label 2 points to the solid, single row of brick-shaped cells directly under the topmost layer. Label 3 points to the next layer from the top, which is a set of loosely-packed, brick-shaped cells. Label 4 points to the third layer from the bottom of the leaf, which contains loosely-packed oval shaped cells. Label 5 points to the second layer from the bottom, which is a single row of brick-shaped cells. Label 6 points to an opening between the brick shaped cells that opens to the external environment. Label 7 points to the two cells that surround the opening.If the stomata were sealed, what would happen to oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in a photosynthesizing leaf?
  1. O2 levels would increase and CO2 levels would decrease.
  2. CO2 levels would increase and O2 levels would decrease.
  3. O2 and CO2 levels would both decrease.
  4. O2 and CO2 levels would both increase.



On a hot, dry day, plants close their stomata to conserve water. Predict the impact of this on photosynthesis and justify your prediction.