The process of photosynthesis transformed life on Earth. By harnessing energy from the sun, the evolution of photosynthesis allowed living things access to enormous amounts of energy. Because of photosynthesis, living things gained access to sufficient energy that allowed them to build new structures and achieve the biodiversity evident today.
Only certain organisms, called photoautotrophs, can perform photosynthesis; they require the presence of chlorophyll, a specialized pigment that absorbs certain portions of the visible spectrum and can capture energy from sunlight. Photosynthesis uses carbon dioxide and water to assemble carbohydrate molecules and release oxygen as a waste product into the atmosphere. Eukaryotic autotrophs, such as plants and algae, have organelles called chloroplasts in which photosynthesis takes place, and starch accumulates. In prokaryotes, such as cyanobacteria, the process is less localized and occurs within folded membranes, extensions of the plasma membrane, and in the cytoplasm.
The pigments of the first part of photosynthesis, the light-dependent reactions, absorb energy from sunlight. A photon strikes the antenna pigments of photosystem II to initiate photosynthesis. The energy travels to the reaction center that contains chlorophyll a and then to the electron transport chain, which pumps hydrogen ions into the thylakoid interior. This action builds up a high concentration of ions. The ions flow through ATP synthase via chemiosmosis to form molecules of ATP, which are used for the formation of sugar molecules in the second stage of photosynthesis. Photosystem I absorbs a second photon, which results in the formation of an NADPH molecule, another energy and reducing power carrier for the light-independent reactions.
Using the energy carriers formed in the first steps of photosynthesis, the light-independent reactions, or the Calvin cycle, take in CO2from the environment. An enzyme, RuBisCO, catalyzes a reaction with CO2 and another molecule, RuBP. After three cycles, a three-carbon molecule of G3P leaves the cycle to become part of a carbohydrate molecule. The remaining G3P molecules stay in the cycle to be regenerated into RuBP, which is then ready to react with more CO2. Photosynthesis forms an energy cycle with the process of cellular respiration. Plants need both photosynthesis and respiration for their ability to function in both the light and dark, and to be able to interconvert essential metabolites. Therefore, plants contain both chloroplasts and mitochondria.