Cells get nutrients from their environment, but where do those nutrients come from? Virtually all organic material on Earth has been produced by cells that convert energy from the Sun into energy -containing macromolecules. This process, called photosynthesis, is essential to the global carbon cycle and organisms that conduct photosynthesis represent the lowest level in most food chains (Figure 1).
What Is Photosynthesis? Why is it Important?
Most living things depend on photosynthetic cells to manufacture the complex organic molecules they require as a source of energy. Photosynthetic cells are quite diverse and include cells found in green plants, phytoplankton, and cyanobacteria. During the process of photosynthesis, cells use carbon dioxide and energy from the Sun to make sugar molecules and oxygen. These sugar molecules are the basis for more complex molecules made by the photosynthetic cell, such as glucose. Then, via respiration processes, cells use oxygen and glucose to synthesize energy-rich carrier molecules, such as ATP, and carbon dioxide is produced as a waste product. Therefore, the synthesis of glucose and its breakdown by cells are opposing processes.
The building and breaking of carbon-based material — from carbon dioxide to complex organic molecules (photosynthesis) then back to carbon dioxide (respiration) — is part of what is commonly called the global carbon cycle. Indeed, the fossil fuels we use to power our world today are the ancient remains of once-living organisms, and they provide a dramatic example of this cycle at work. The carbon cycle would not be possible without photosynthesis, because this process accounts for the "building" portion of the cycle (Figure 2).
However, photosynthesis doesn't just drive the carbon cycle — it also creates the oxygen necessary for respiring organisms. Interestingly, although green plants contribute much of the oxygen in the air we
breathe, phytoplankton and cyanobacteria in the world's oceans are thought to produce between one-third and one-half of atmospheric oxygen on Earth.
What Cells and Organelles Are Involved in Photosynthesis?
Photosynthetic cells contain special pigments that absorb light energy. Different pigments respond to different wavelengths of visible light. Chlorophyll, the primary pigment used in photosynthesis, reflects green light and absorbs red and blue light most strongly. In plants, photosynthesis takes place in chloroplasts, which contain the chlorophyll. Chloroplasts are surrounded by a double membrane and contain a third inner membrane, called the thylakoid membrane that forms long folds within the organelle. In electron micrographs, thylakoid membranes look like stacks of coins, although the compartments they form are connected like a maze of chambers. The green pigment chlorophyll is located within the thylakoid membrane, and the space between the thylakoid and the chloroplast membranes is called the stroma (Figure 3, Figure 4).
Chlorophyll A is the major pigment used in photosynthesis, but there are several types of chlorophyll and numerous other pigments that respond to light, including red, brown, and blue pigments. These other pigments may help channel light energy to chlorophyll A or protect the cell from photo-damage. For example, the photosynthetic protists called dinoflagellates, which are responsible for the "red tides" that often prompt warnings against eating shellfish, contain a variety of light-sensitive pigments, including both chlorophyll and the red pigments responsible for their dramatic coloration.
Figure 4: Diagram of a chloroplast inside a cell, showing thylakoid stacks
Shown here is a chloroplast inside a cell, with the outer membrane (OE) and inner membrane (IE) labeled. Other features of the cell include the nucleus (N), mitochondrion (M), and plasma membrane
(PM). At right and below are microscopic images of thylakoid stacks called