Overview of Photosynthesis

Overview 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, which are 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). 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.
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 high-energy electrons 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), 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.
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)
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