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Light Eaters and Life Givers: The Process of Photosythesis

We all know photosynthesis is important, but how important? Well, all life on earth depends on it either directly or indirectly. We all know photosynthesis is important, but how important? Well, all life on earth depends on it either directly or indirectly.

 

Plant science never ceases to fascinate me. My favorite moments have always been when I think I knew something inside and out only to be astonished once again by the baffling wonder that is nature. I remember sitting in a botany class in the early 2000s, listening to my professor explain photosynthesis. Everyone in the class was familiar with the concept in a general sense, but the prof dropped a comment that stuck photosynthesis to me in a way I had never considered before.

"Plants eat light, you know," he said.

Yes, plants eat light. Under grow lights, below the sun, or sitting in a window, plants basking in light are actually consuming it. They use light as our bodies use food, converting it into carbohydrates, sugars and more in order to propel their existence.

I have always liked to think that plants and humans are not really that different. We both need the sun to survive, have sex, are carbon-based life forms and will wither and die without proper nutrition or care. It stunned me to discover that animal and plant cells indeed have a relatively similar constitution. Plant cells of course have a cell wall made of cellulose and contain a few extra cell organs, called organelles, that facilitate the conversion of light into a food source.

All green parts of a plant contain chlorophyll and all these parts are capable of harvesting light, although leaves themselves are the most effective light absorbers.

These organelles are called chloroplasts. They are photo-reactive centers that contain chlorophyll, the main pigment along with carotenes and xanthophylls, used to absorb particles of light, otherwise known as photons. Chlorophyll is most adept absorbing blue light, followed by red. Green spectrums are poorly absorbed and thus reflected, giving plant life its greenish hue.

Each plant cell contains up to 100 chloroplasts, translating to approximately 8 million of these photo-sensitive organs per square centimeter of leaf, making something of a living solar panel. All green parts of a plant contain chlorophyll and all these parts are capable of harvesting light, although leaves themselves are the most effective light absorbers.

So let's get down to the nitty-gritty. For basic photosynthesis, three components are needed: photons, carbon dioxide, and water.

When carbon dioxide, water, and light are present, photosynthesis produces carbohydrates for the plant and releases oxygen as a by-product. When light hits a pigment of chlorophyll, its molecule absorbs a light particle and loses an electron in the process. This loose electron is used by other parts of the chloroplast to convert the absorbed photon into two forms of chemical energy, ATP and NADP. It is also used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, stealing its hydrogen ions to later produce carbohydrate sugar and releasing the oxygen, which is of no use to the plant, into the atmosphere.

In the second step, one of the remaining hydrogen ions bonds with the NADP to form NADPH. Carbon dioxide is absorbed through microscopic openings in a leaf called stomata, and is then captured by a plant enzyme called RuBisCo. The carbon dioxide is fixated in the plant cell using ATP and NADPH energy. This cycle is called the Calvin cycle and produces carbohydrates and glucose for the plant to nourish itself while reserving some ATP and NADPH to form new RuBisCo and other plant molecules in order to repeat this process continually.

While the fact that a living organism can create food for itself with light is simply astonishing, what is even more amazing is that this reaction is responsible for nearly all oxygen present on earth. We can thank our plants for our existence, even the very air we breathe, all made possible by photosynthesis.

© Copyright RosebudMag.com, 2013



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Last modified on Wednesday, 26 June 2013 19:52

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