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Biology A-level: Photosynthesis

This shows that carbon dioxide and water are turned into glucose and oxygen in a plant,
using light as energy.

The carbon dioxide enters the plant by stomata (in the leaves) or lenticels (in the stem).
The water enters through the roots and moves up through the plant in xylem vessels.
Light is required as an energy source for the reaction and chlorophyll is necessary to
absorb the light.

The glucose made may be used to make other substances or it may be used in respiration.
The oxygen may diffuse out through the stomata or it may be used in respiration.

Light energy is necessary but it must be harvested and trapped by the photosynthetic
pigments to be of any use.

Chlorophyll absorbs light from the visible part of the electromagnetic part of the
spectrum, but there are several types of chlorophyll...

• chlorophyll a
• chlorophyll b
• chlorophyll c
• bacteriochlorophyll (found in photosynthetic bacteria!)

There are also other families of pigments, such as the carotenoids.

Not all wavelengths of light are equally absorbed and different chlorophylls absorb more
strongly in different parts of the visible spectrum.

Absorption and Action Spectrums

The action spectrum shows the rate of photosynthesis at different wavelengths.

The absorption spectrum shows how strongly the pigments absorb at different
wavelengths.

The absorption spectrum and action spectrum show that the wavelengths that are most
strongly absorbed (red and blue) are the ones that cause photosynthesis to proceed at the
fastest rate. Green is not strongly absorbed; rather it is reflected, causing leaves to look
green.
The shorter the wavelength, the more energy it contains. During photosynthesis the light
energy is converted into chemical energy. The absorbed light excites electrons in the
pigment molecules and the energy can be passed on to be used by the plant.

Photosystems

The pigments are arranged in funnel shaped photosystems that sit on the thylakoid
membranes in the chloroplasts.

In each photosystem, several hundred pigment molecules, called accessory pigments, are
clustered around a particular pigment molecule, known as the primary pigment.

The various accessory pigments absorb light of different wavelengths and pass the energy
down the photosystem. Eventually the energy reaches the primary pigment that acts as a
reaction centre.

There are 2 types of photosystem:

• Photosystem One - PS I:

Its primary pigment is a molecule of chlorophyll a with an absorption peak at


700nm. It is called P700

• Photosystem Two - PS II:

Its primary pigment is a molecule of chlorophyll b with an absorption peak at


680nm. It is called P680

PS I are situated next to PS II on the thylakoid membrane.

The first reactions of photosynthesis require light energy, and are called light dependant
reactions.

The aim is to produce ATP from ADP and inorganic P and harvest hydrogen so that
carbon dioxide can be reduced to form a carbohydrate in the second series of reactions.
The production of ATP using light is called photophosphorylation.

It will be useful if you refer to the Respiration Learn-it, and refresh your memory about
electron carriers and the Chemiosmotic theory, as both reappear here.

There are many electron carriers involved, but the one that you must know about for the
exams is NADP (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate).
When light is absorbed by PS I and PS II, electrons in the chlorophyll molecule are
boosted to higher energy levels. They are emitted and passed on to electron carriers.

The loss of electrons from PS II causes the splitting of water. The water gives up its
electrons to PS II to fill the gap.

This leaves oxygen, which is given off as waste, and hydrogen ions. (See later in this
Learn-it for loss of electrons from PS I).

The electrons are passed through a series of electron carriers at successively lower energy
levels. This means that energy is released and used to form ATP out of ADP and P.

This occurs in a similar way to ATP production in mitochondria. The energy is actually
used to pump hydrogen ions from the stroma across the thylakoid membrane. This creates
an electrochemical gradient.

As the hydrogen ions diffuse back down the concentration gradient they flow through
proteins. Part of each protein is ATP synthetase.

The energy released as the hydrogen ions diffuse down the concentration gradient is used
to synthesise ATP. The electron eventually reaches PS I and fills the space.

Non-Cyclic Photophosphorylation

The electrons from PS I may also pass onto an electron carrier and then combine with the
hydrogen ions (from the water) to reduce NADP to NADPH.

This reduced NADP is used in the next series of reactions.

Note: No ATP has been made during this process.

This process is called non-cyclic photophosphorylation.

Cyclic Photophosphorylation

However, if there is plenty of NADPH, something different happens.

The electron from PS I is passed to the electron carriers used in PS II. ATP is formed and
the electrons return to PS I to fill the space. This makes PS II redundant as no electrons
are needed from there to fill the space in PS I. Only PS I is active. This is called cyclic
photophosphorylation.
To summarise, in cyclic photophosphorylation...

• No PS II is involved.
• No oxygen is evolved.
• No NADPH is made.
• ATP is still made.

Calvin cycle

These reactions can occur in the light or the dark. They need ATP for energy to drive the
reactions, and they need NADPH for reducing power. They occur in the stroma of the
chloroplast and are called the Calvin cycle.

Carbon dioxide combines with a 5-carbon sugar called ribulose bisphosphate (RuBP) to
form a 6-carbon sugar. This process is known as carbon fixation and is catalysed by the
enzyme ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase (rubisco).

This 6-carbon sugar is unstable and breaks down to form two 3-carbon sugars. These are
converted into triose phosphates using the energy from ATP and using the hydrogen
from reduced NADP.

Most of this triose phosphate is used to regenerate RuBP, but some is used to produce 6-
carbon sugars from which complex carbohydrates, amino acids and other substances are
made.

For every twelve 3-carbon sugars (36 carbons):

Two of the 3-carbon sugars form 1 x 6-carbon sugar (6 carbons)

Ten of the 3-carbon sugars form 6 x 5-carbon sugars (RuBP) (30 carbons)