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Independence of Light independent reaction in photosynthesis?

Independence of Light independent reaction in photosynthesis?


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Inspired by a question asked to me by a classmate, I have the following question about Light-independent (dark phase) reactions in photosynthesis:-

Let us suppose an algae sample was exposed to light for a considerable time so that maximum( if there is a limit) NADPH concentration was achieved. Now if the sample is placed in dark and radioactive ¹⁴CO₂ bubbled, will the cell be radiolabelled after some time of bubbling continuously?

I guess the answer depends on the active life of ATP and NADPH , the products of light reaction. If they are considerably stable, such that they are in sufficient concentration for executing Calvin cycle although their production (apart from respiratory ATP production) has ceased due to absence of light. If they are, then the ATP and NADPH produced during the initial exposure period will carry out carbon fixation with radioactive carbon and hence radio labelled sugars will be recoverable from the sample. If not, they will quickly degenerate (by hydrolysis, utilization or likewise) and they will be unable to carry out fixation after some fixed time after stopping the light.

What, under normal conditions, should be the time after which the light-reaction products are no longer capable of fixing CO₂ by Calvin cycle? And, ultimately, will the presence of radioactivity in sugars for the scenario above depend on the species of plant?

[I am ignoring all radioactivity due to dissolution of ¹⁴CO₂ in cytoplasm]


It turns out that the so-called light independent reactions are not light-independent at all: there are several regulatory mechanisms in place to prevent the turning of the Calvin Cycle when there is no light energy available to produce ATP/NADPH. The hypothetical situation you described in your question demonstrates the necessity of such regulation. The cell cannot allow levels of ATP and NADPH to drop too low because those two factors are required for everything. So if you let the Calvin Cycle run when there is no means of fueling it (ultimately) from light energy, then the Calvin Cycle will run until ATP/NADPH is too low to sustain it further, at which point the cell dies. So several key enzymes in the Calvin cycle are activated indirectly by light.

One of the most well-studied regulatory mechanisms is the ferrodoxin/thioredoxin regulatory system. The enzyme Ferredoxin-Thioredoxin reductase takes electrons from ferredoxin (which is reduced by light energy via the photosystems) and transfers it to thioredoxin, a disulfide-based redox protein. Then thioredoxin reduces several key enzymes in the Calvin Cycle, which activates them (through conformational changes induced by disulfide bonds). The upshot is that when light is around to facilitate reduction, the metabolic enzymes of the Calvin cycle can work, but in the dark the cell oxidizes and these enzymes are turned off, switching off the Calvin cycle and arresting CO$_2$ fixation.

An orthogonal direction of light regulation of the "light-independent" reactions is RuBisCO Activase, which is required to modify the RuBisCO active site to be active. This requires ATP hydrolysis, which amplifies the sensitivity of the Calvin Cycle to ATP availability.

The takeaway is the light-independent reactions may not directly require light as an input, but they are regulated by light availability. I tried to look up how much time in the dark would be required to shift the redox balance such that the Calvin Cycle enzymes would be inactivated, but I couldn't find that data. People in the literature, however, seem to believe it would be quick (1).

There is some description of this at Wikipedia. If you want to look further, Bob Buchanan at Berkeley made a lot of seminal advances in this area; a review of his you might want to check out is (2).

(1): Ruelland E, Miginiac-Maslow M. (1999). Trends in Plant Science. 4(4): 136-141

(2): Buchanan BB. (1980). Annual Review of Plant Physiology. 31:341-374.


Biology 171

By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:

  • Explain how plants absorb energy from sunlight
  • Describe short and long wavelengths of light
  • Describe how and where photosynthesis takes place within a plant

How can light energy be used to make food? When a person turns on a lamp, electrical energy becomes light energy. Like all other forms of kinetic energy, light can travel, change form, and be harnessed to do work. In the case of photosynthesis, light energy is converted into chemical energy, which photoautotrophs use to build basic carbohydrate molecules ((Figure)). However, autotrophs only use a few specific wavelengths of sunlight.


What Is Light Energy?

The sun emits an enormous amount of electromagnetic radiation (solar energy in a spectrum from very short gamma rays to very long radio waves). Humans can see only a tiny fraction of this energy, which we refer to as “visible light.” The manner in which solar energy travels is described as waves. Scientists can determine the amount of energy of a wave by measuring its wavelength (shorter wavelengths are more powerful than longer wavelengths)—the distance between consecutive crest points of a wave. Therefore, a single wave is measured from two consecutive points, such as from crest to crest or from trough to trough ((Figure)).


Visible light constitutes only one of many types of electromagnetic radiation emitted from the sun and other stars. Scientists differentiate the various types of radiant energy from the sun within the electromagnetic spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of all possible frequencies of radiation ((Figure)). The difference between wavelengths relates to the amount of energy carried by them.


Each type of electromagnetic radiation travels at a particular wavelength. The longer the wavelength, the less energy it carries. Short, tight waves carry the most energy. This may seem illogical, but think of it in terms of a piece of moving heavy rope. It takes little effort by a person to move a rope in long, wide waves. To make a rope move in short, tight waves, a person would need to apply significantly more energy.

The electromagnetic spectrum ((Figure)) shows several types of electromagnetic radiation originating from the sun, including X-rays and ultraviolet (UV) rays. The higher-energy waves can penetrate tissues and damage cells and DNA, which explains why both X-rays and UV rays can be harmful to living organisms.

Absorption of Light

Light energy initiates the process of photosynthesis when pigments absorb specific wavelengths of visible light. Organic pigments, whether in the human retina or the chloroplast thylakoid, have a narrow range of energy levels that they can absorb. Energy levels lower than those represented by red light are insufficient to raise an orbital electron to a excited (quantum) state. Energy levels higher than those in blue light will physically tear the molecules apart, in a process called bleaching. Our retinal pigments can only “see” (absorb) wavelengths between 700 nm and 400 nm of light, a spectrum that is therefore called visible light. For the same reasons, plants, pigment molecules absorb only light in the wavelength range of 700 nm to 400 nm plant physiologists refer to this range for plants as photosynthetically active radiation.

The visible light seen by humans as white light actually exists in a rainbow of colors. Certain objects, such as a prism or a drop of water, disperse white light to reveal the colors to the human eye. The visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum shows the rainbow of colors, with violet and blue having shorter wavelengths, and therefore higher energy. At the other end of the spectrum toward red, the wavelengths are longer and have lower energy ((Figure)).


Understanding Pigments

Different kinds of pigments exist, and each absorbs only specific wavelengths (colors) of visible light. Pigments reflect or transmit the wavelengths they cannot absorb, making them appear a mixture of the reflected or transmitted light colors.

Chlorophylls and carotenoids are the two major classes of photosynthetic pigments found in plants and algae each class has multiple types of pigment molecules. There are five major chlorophylls: a, b, c and d and a related molecule found in prokaryotes called bacteriochlorophyll. Chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b are found in higher plant chloroplasts and will be the focus of the following discussion.

With dozens of different forms, carotenoids are a much larger group of pigments. The carotenoids found in fruit—such as the red of tomato (lycopene), the yellow of corn seeds (zeaxanthin), or the orange of an orange peel (β-carotene)—are used as advertisements to attract seed dispersers. In photosynthesis, carotenoids function as photosynthetic pigments that are very efficient molecules for the disposal of excess energy. When a leaf is exposed to full sun, the light-dependent reactions are required to process an enormous amount of energy if that energy is not handled properly, it can do significant damage. Therefore, many carotenoids reside in the thylakoid membrane, absorb excess energy, and safely dissipate that energy as heat.

Each type of pigment can be identified by the specific pattern of wavelengths it absorbs from visible light: This is termed the absorption spectrum . The graph in (Figure) shows the absorption spectra for chlorophyll a, chlorophyll b, and a type of carotenoid pigment called β-carotene (which absorbs blue and green light). Notice how each pigment has a distinct set of peaks and troughs, revealing a highly specific pattern of absorption. Chlorophyll a absorbs wavelengths from either end of the visible spectrum (blue and red), but not green. Because green is reflected or transmitted, chlorophyll appears green. Carotenoids absorb in the short-wavelength blue region, and reflect the longer yellow, red, and orange wavelengths.


Many photosynthetic organisms have a mixture of pigments, and by using these pigments, the organism can absorb energy from a wider range of wavelengths. Not all photosynthetic organisms have full access to sunlight. Some organisms grow underwater where light intensity and quality decrease and change with depth. Other organisms grow in competition for light. Plants on the rainforest floor must be able to absorb any bit of light that comes through, because the taller trees absorb most of the sunlight and scatter the remaining solar radiation ((Figure)).


When studying a photosynthetic organism, scientists can determine the types of pigments present by generating absorption spectra. An instrument called a spectrophotometer can differentiate which wavelengths of light a substance can absorb. Spectrophotometers measure transmitted light and compute from it the absorption. By extracting pigments from leaves and placing these samples into a spectrophotometer, scientists can identify which wavelengths of light an organism can absorb. Additional methods for the identification of plant pigments include various types of chromatography that separate the pigments by their relative affinities to solid and mobile phases.

How Light-Dependent Reactions Work

The overall function of light-dependent reactions is to convert solar energy into chemical energy in the form of NADPH and ATP. This chemical energy supports the light-independent reactions and fuels the assembly of sugar molecules. The light-dependent reactions are depicted in (Figure). Protein complexes and pigment molecules work together to produce NADPH and ATP. The numbering of the photosystems is derived from the order in which they were discovered, not in the order of the transfer of electrons.


The actual step that converts light energy into chemical energy takes place in a multiprotein complex called a photosystem , two types of which are found embedded in the thylakoid membrane: photosystem II (PSII) and photosystem I (PSI) ((Figure)). The two complexes differ on the basis of what they oxidize (that is, the source of the low-energy electron supply) and what they reduce (the place to which they deliver their energized electrons).

Both photosystems have the same basic structure a number of antenna proteins to which the chlorophyll molecules are bound surround the reaction center where the photochemistry takes place. Each photosystem is serviced by the light-harvesting complex , which passes energy from sunlight to the reaction center it consists of multiple antenna proteins that contain a mixture of 300 to 400 chlorophyll a and b molecules as well as other pigments like carotenoids. The absorption of a single photon or distinct quantity or “packet” of light by any of the chlorophylls pushes that molecule into an excited state. In short, the light energy has now been captured by biological molecules but is not stored in any useful form yet. The energy is transferred from chlorophyll to chlorophyll until eventually (after about a millionth of a second), it is delivered to the reaction center. Up to this point, only energy has been transferred between molecules, not electrons.


What is the initial source of electrons for the chloroplast electron transport chain?

The reaction center contains a pair of chlorophyll a molecules with a special property. Those two chlorophylls can undergo oxidation upon excitation they can actually give up an electron in a process called a photoact . It is at this step in the reaction center during photosynthesis that light energy is converted into an excited electron. All of the subsequent steps involve getting that electron onto the energy carrier NADPH for delivery to the Calvin cycle where the electron is deposited onto carbon for long-term storage in the form of a carbohydrate. PSII and PSI are two major components of the photosynthetic electron transport chain , which also includes the cytochrome complex. The cytochrome complex, an enzyme composed of two protein complexes, transfers the electrons from the carrier molecule plastoquinone (Pq) to the protein plastocyanin (Pc), thus enabling both the transfer of protons across the thylakoid membrane and the transfer of electrons from PSII to PSI.

The reaction center of PSII (called P680 ) delivers its high-energy electrons, one at the time, to the primary electron acceptor , and through the electron transport chain (Pq to cytochrome complex to plastocyanine) to PSI. P680’s missing electron is replaced by extracting a low-energy electron from water thus, water is “split” during this stage of photosynthesis, and PSII is re-reduced after every photoact. Splitting one H2O molecule releases two electrons, two hydrogen atoms, and one atom of oxygen. However, splitting two molecules is required to form one molecule of diatomic O2 gas. About 10 percent of the oxygen is used by mitochondria in the leaf to support oxidative phosphorylation. The remainder escapes to the atmosphere where it is used by aerobic organisms to support respiration.

As electrons move through the proteins that reside between PSII and PSI, they lose energy. This energy is used to move hydrogen atoms from the stromal side of the membrane to the thylakoid lumen. Those hydrogen atoms, plus the ones produced by splitting water, accumulate in the thylakoid lumen and will be used synthesize ATP in a later step. Because the electrons have lost energy prior to their arrival at PSI, they must be re-energized by PSI, hence, another photon is absorbed by the PSI antenna. That energy is relayed to the PSI reaction center (called P700 ). P700 is oxidized and sends a high-energy electron to NADP + to form NADPH. Thus, PSII captures the energy to create proton gradients to make ATP, and PSI captures the energy to reduce NADP + into NADPH. The two photosystems work in concert, in part, to guarantee that the production of NADPH will roughly equal the production of ATP. Other mechanisms exist to fine-tune that ratio to exactly match the chloroplast’s constantly changing energy needs.

Generating an Energy Carrier: ATP

As in the intermembrane space of the mitochondria during cellular respiration, the buildup of hydrogen ions inside the thylakoid lumen creates a concentration gradient. The passive diffusion of hydrogen ions from high concentration (in the thylakoid lumen) to low concentration (in the stroma) is harnessed to create ATP, just as in the electron transport chain of cellular respiration. The ions build up energy because of diffusion and because they all have the same electrical charge, repelling each other.

To release this energy, hydrogen ions will rush through any opening, similar to water jetting through a hole in a dam. In the thylakoid, that opening is a passage through a specialized protein channel called the ATP synthase. The energy released by the hydrogen ion stream allows ATP synthase to attach a third phosphate group to ADP, which forms a molecule of ATP ((Figure)). The flow of hydrogen ions through ATP synthase is called chemiosmosis because the ions move from an area of high to an area of low concentration through a semi-permeable structure of the thylakoid.

View Photosynthesis: Light Reactions (Flash animation) to learn more about the process of photosynthesis within a leaf.

Section Summary

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 hydrogen ions. The hydrogen ions flow through ATP synthase during 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 carrier for the light-independent reactions.

Art Connections

(Figure) What is the source of electrons for the chloroplast electron transport chain?


What you'll learn:

Calvin cycle uses the reducing power of ATP and performs further chemical processes. It produces sugar which acts as a source of food for the plant. It is not a single direct reaction to convert carbon dioxide into sugar. It involves the loss of heat. The Calvin cycle is a three-step reaction that involves carbon fixation, reduction reactions, and regeneration of RuBP (ribulose 1, 5-bisphosphate). This reaction works in association with the electron transport system which takes place in the thylakoid membrane.


Absorption of Light

Light energy enters the process of photosynthesis when pigments absorb the light. In plants, pigment molecules absorb only visible light for photosynthesis. The visible light seen by humans as white light actually exists in a rainbow of colors. Certain objects, such as a prism or a drop of water, disperse white light to reveal these colors to the human eye. The visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is perceived by the human eye as a rainbow of colors, with violet and blue having shorter wavelengths and, therefore, higher energy. At the other end of the spectrum toward red, the wavelengths are longer and have lower energy.


Understanding Pigments

Different kinds of pigments exist, and each absorbs only certain wavelengths (colors) of visible light. Pigments reflect the color of the wavelengths that they cannot absorb.

All photosynthetic organisms contain a pigment called chlorophyll a, which humans see as the common green color associated with plants. Chlorophyll a absorbs wavelengths from either end of the visible spectrum (blue and red), but not from green. Because green is reflected, chlorophyll appears green.

Figure 4. Plants that commonly grow in the shade benefit from having a variety of light-absorbing pigments. Each pigment can absorb different wavelengths of light, which allows the plant to absorb any light that passes through the taller trees. (credit: Jason Hollinger)

Other pigment types include chlorophyll b (which absorbs blue and red-orange light) and the carotenoids. Each type of pigment can be identified by the specific pattern of wavelengths it absorbs from visible light, which is its absorption spectrum.

Many photosynthetic organisms have a mixture of pigments between them, the organism can absorb energy from a wider range of visible-light wavelengths. Not all photosynthetic organisms have full access to sunlight. Some organisms grow underwater where light intensity decreases with depth, and certain wavelengths are absorbed by the water. Other organisms grow in competition for light. Plants on the rainforest floor must be able to absorb any bit of light that comes through, because the taller trees block most of the sunlight (Figure 4).


Photosynthetic Structures in Eukaryotes and Prokaryotes

In all phototrophic eukaryotes, photosynthesis takes place inside a chloroplast, an organelle that arose in eukaryotes by endosymbiosis of a photosynthetic bacterium. These chloroplasts are enclosed by a double membrane with inner and outer layers. Within the chloroplast is a third membrane that forms stacked, disc-shaped photosynthetic structures called thylakoids (Figure (PageIndex<2>)). A stack of thylakoids is called a granum, and the space surrounding the granum within the chloroplast is called stroma.

Photosynthetic membranes in prokaryotes, by contrast, are not organized into distinct membrane-enclosed organelles rather, they are infolded regions of the plasma membrane. In cyanobacteria, for example, these infolded regions are also referred to as thylakoids. In either case, embedded within the thylakoid membranes or other photosynthetic bacterial membranes are photosynthetic pigment molecules organized into one or more photosystems, where light energy is actually converted into chemical energy.

Photosynthetic pigments within the photosynthetic membranes are organized into photosystems, each of which is composed of a light-harvesting (antennae) complex and a reaction center. The light-harvesting complex consists of multiple proteins and associated pigments that each may absorb light energy and, thus, become excited. This energy is transferred from one pigment molecule to another until eventually (after about a millionth of a second) it is delivered to the reaction center. Up to this point, only energy&mdashnot electrons&mdashhas been transferred between molecules. The reaction center contains a pigment molecule that can undergo oxidation upon excitation, actually giving up an electron. It is at this step in photosynthesis that light energy is converted into an excited electron.

Different kinds of light-harvesting pigments absorb unique patterns of wavelengths (colors) of visible light. Pigments reflect or transmit the wavelengths they cannot absorb, making them appear the corresponding color. Examples of photosynthetic pigments (molecules used to absorb solar energy) are bacteriochlorophylls (green, purple, or red), carotenoids (orange, red, or yellow), chlorophylls (green), phycocyanins (blue), and phycoerythrins (red). By having mixtures of pigments, an organism can absorb energy from more wavelengths. Because photosynthetic bacteria commonly grow in competition for sunlight, each type of photosynthetic bacteria is optimized for harvesting the wavelengths of light to which it is commonly exposed, leading to stratification of microbial communities in aquatic and soil ecosystems by light quality and penetration.

Once the light harvesting complex transfers the energy to the reaction center, the reaction center delivers its high-energy electrons, one by one, to an electron carrier in an electron transport system, and electron transfer through the ETS is initiated. The ETS is similar to that used in cellular respiration and is embedded within the photosynthetic membrane. Ultimately, the electron is used to produce NADH or NADPH. The electrochemical gradient that forms across the photosynthetic membrane is used to generate ATP by chemiosmosis through the process of photophosphorylation, another example of oxidative phosphorylation (Figure (PageIndex<3>)).

Figure (PageIndex<2>): (a) Photosynthesis in eukaryotes takes place in chloroplasts, which contain thylakoids stacked into grana. (b) A photosynthetic prokaryote has infolded regions of the plasma membrane that function like thylakoids. (credit: scale bar data from Matt Russell.) Figure (PageIndex<3>): This figure summarizes how a photosystem works. Light harvesting (LH) pigments absorb light energy, converting it to chemical energy. The energy is passed from one LH pigment to another until it reaches a reaction center (RC) pigment, exciting an electron. This high-energy electron is lost from the RC pigment and passed through an electron transport system (ETS), ultimately producing NADH or NADPH and ATP. A reduced molecule (H2A) donates an electron, replacing electrons to the electron-deficient RC pigment.

In a phototrophic eukaryote, where does photosynthesis take place?

Oxygenic and Anoxygenic Photosynthesis

For photosynthesis to continue, the electron lost from the reaction center pigment must be replaced. The source of this electron (H2A) differentiates the oxygenic photosynthesis of plants and cyanobacteria from anoxygenic photosynthesis carried out by other types of bacterial phototrophs (Figure (PageIndex<4>)). In oxygenic photosynthesis, H2O is split and supplies the electron to the reaction center. Because oxygen is generated as a byproduct and is released, this type of photosynthesis is referred to as oxygenic photosynthesis. However, when other reduced compounds serve as the electron donor, oxygen is not generated these types of photosynthesis are called anoxygenic photosynthesis. Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) or thiosulfate (S2O2&minus3) can serve as the electron donor, generating elemental sulfur and sulfate (SO2&minus4) ions, respectively, as a result.

Figure (PageIndex<4>): Eukaryotes and cyanobacteria carry out oxygenic photosynthesis, producing oxygen, whereas other bacteria carry out anoxygenic photosynthesis, which does not produce oxygen.

Photosystems have been classified into two types: photosystem I (PSI) and photosystem II (PSII) (Figure (PageIndex<5>)). Cyanobacteria and plant chloroplasts have both photosystems, whereas anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria use only one of the photosystems. Both photosystems are excited by light energy simultaneously. If the cell requires both ATP and NADPH for biosynthesis, then it will carry out noncyclic photophosphorylation. Upon passing of the PSII reaction center electron to the ETS that connects PSII and PSI, the lost electron from the PSII reaction center is replaced by the splitting of water. The excited PSI reaction center electron is used to reduce NADP + to NADPH and is replaced by the electron exiting the ETS. The flow of electrons in this way is called the Z-scheme.If a cell&rsquos need for ATP is significantly greater than its need for NADPH, it may bypass the production of reducing power through cyclic photophosphorylation. Only PSI is used during cyclic photophosphorylation the high-energy electron of the PSI reaction center is passed to an ETS carrier and then ultimately returns to the oxidized PSI reaction center pigment, thereby reducing it.

Figure (PageIndex<5>): PSI and PSII are found on the thylakoid membrane. The high-energy electron from PSII is passed to an ETS, which generates a proton motive force for ATP synthesis by chemiosmosis, and ultimately replaces the electron lost by the PSI reaction center. The PSI reaction center electron is used to make NADPH.

Figure (PageIndex<6>): When both ATP and NADPH are required, noncyclic photophosphorylation (in cyanobacteria and plants) provides both. The electron flow described here is referred to as the Z-scheme (shown in yellow in [a]). When the cell&rsquos ATP needs outweigh those for NADPH, cyanobacteria and plants will use only PSI, and its reaction center electron is passed to the ETS to generate a proton motive force used for ATP synthesis.

Why would a photosynthetic bacterium have different pigments?


Stage 1: Fixation

In the stroma, in addition to CO2, two other components are present to initiate the light-independent reactions: an enzyme called ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (RuBisCO), and three molecules of ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate (RuBP), as shown in Figure (PageIndex<2>). RuBP has five atoms of carbon, flanked by two phosphates.

Figure (PageIndex<2>): The light-independent reactions (Calvin cycle) has three stages. In stage 1, the enzyme RuBisCO adds carbon dioxide to RuBP, which immediately splits, producing two three-carbon 3-PGA molecules. In stage 2, two NADPH and two ATP are used to reduce 3-PGA to GA3P. In stage 3, RuBP, the molecule that starts the cycle, is regenerated so that the cycle can continue. One ATP is used in the process. Only one carbon dioxide molecule is incorporated at a time, so the cycle must be completed three times to produce a single three-carbon GA3P molecule, and six times to produce a six-carbon glucose molecule.

RuBisCO catalyzes a reaction between CO2 and RuBP. For each CO2 molecule that reacts with one RuBP, two molecules of another compound, 3-phosphoglycerate (3-PGA), form. 3-PGA has three carbon atoms and one phosphate. Each turn of the cycle involves only one RuBP and one carbon dioxide and forms two molecules of 3-PGA. The number of carbon atoms remains the same, as the atoms move to form new bonds during the reactions (3 atoms from 3 CO2 + 15 atoms from 3 RuBP = 18 atoms in 3 atoms of 3-PGA). This process is called carbon fixation , because CO2 is &ldquofixed&rdquo from an inorganic form into organic molecules.


8.2.5 Explain the light-independent reactions.

The light-independant reactions of photosynthesis occur in the stroma of the chloroplast and involve the conversion of carbon dioxide and other compounds into glucose. The light-independent reactions can be split into three stages, these are carbon fixation, the reduction reactions and finally the regeneration of ribulose bisphosphate. Collectively these stages are known as the Calvin Cycle.

During carbon fixation, carbon dioxide in the stroma (which enters the chloroplast by diffusion) reacts with a five-carbon sugar called ribulose bisphosphate (RuBP) to form a six-carbon compound. This reaction is catalysed by an enzyme called ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase (large amounts present within the stroma), otherwise known as rubisco. As soon as the six-carbon compound is formed, it splits to form two molecules of glycerate 3-phosphate. Glycerate 3-phosphate is then used in the reduction reactions.

Glycerate 3-phosphate is reduced during the reduction reactions to a three-carbon sugar called triose phosphate. Energy and hydrogen is needed for the reduction and these are supplied by ATP and NADPH + H + (both produced during light-dependent reactions) respectively. Two triose phosphate molecules can then react together to form glucose phosphate. The condensation of many molecules of glucose phosphate forms starch which is the form of carbohydrate stored in plants. However, out of six triose phosphates produced during the reduction reactions, only one will be used to synthesise glucose phosphate. The five remaining triose phosphates will be used to regenerate RuBP.

The regeneration of RuBP is essential for carbon fixation to continue. Five triose phosphate molecules will undergo a series of reactions requiring energy from ATP, to form three molecules of RuBP. RuBP is therefore consumed and produced during the light-independent reactions and therefore these reactions form a cycle which is named the Calvin cycle.


Understanding Pigments

Different kinds of pigments exist, and each has evolved to absorb only certain wavelengths (colors) of visible light. Pigments reflect or transmit the wavelengths they cannot absorb, making them appear in the corresponding color.

Chlorophylls and carotenoids are the two major classes of photosynthetic pigments found in plants and algae each class has multiple types of pigment molecules. There are five major chlorophylls: a, b, c and d and a related molecule found in prokaryotes called bacteriochlorophyll. Chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b are found in higher plant chloroplasts and will be the focus of the following discussion.

With dozens of different forms, carotenoids are a much larger group of pigments. The carotenoids found in fruit—such as the red of tomato (lycopene), the yellow of corn seeds (zeaxanthin), or the orange of an orange peel (β-carotene)—are used as advertisements to attract seed dispersers. In photosynthesis, carotenoids function as photosynthetic pigments that are very efficient molecules for the disposal of excess energy. When a leaf is exposed to full sun, the light-dependent reactions are required to process an enormous amount of energy if that energy is not handled properly, it can do significant damage. Therefore, many carotenoids reside in the thylakoid membrane, absorb excess energy, and safely dissipate that energy as heat.

Each type of pigment can be identified by the specific pattern of wavelengths it absorbs from visible light, which is the absorption spectrum . The graph in [Figure 5] shows the absorption spectra for chlorophyll a, chlorophyll b, and a type of carotenoid pigment called β-carotene (which absorbs blue and green light). Notice how each pigment has a distinct set of peaks and troughs, revealing a highly specific pattern of absorption. Chlorophyll a absorbs wavelengths from either end of the visible spectrum (blue and red), but not green. Because green is reflected or transmitted, chlorophyll appears green. Carotenoids absorb in the short-wavelength blue region, and reflect the longer yellow, red, and orange wavelengths.

Figure 5: (a) Chlorophyll a, (b) chlorophyll b, and (c) β-carotene are hydrophobic organic pigments found in the thylakoid membrane. Chlorophyll a and b, which are identical except for the part indicated in the red box, are responsible for the green color of leaves. β-carotene is responsible for the orange color in carrots. Each pigment has (d) a unique absorbance spectrum.

Many photosynthetic organisms have a mixture of pigments using them, the organism can absorb energy from a wider range of wavelengths. Not all photosynthetic organisms have full access to sunlight. Some organisms grow underwater where light intensity and quality decrease and change with depth. Other organisms grow in competition for light. Plants on the rainforest floor must be able to absorb any bit of light that comes through, because the taller trees absorb most of the sunlight and scatter the remaining solar radiation ([Figure 6]).

Figure 6: Plants that commonly grow in the shade have adapted to low levels of light by changing the relative concentrations of their chlorophyll pigments. (credit: Jason Hollinger)

When studying a photosynthetic organism, scientists can determine the types of pigments present by generating absorption spectra. An instrument called a spectrophotometer can differentiate which wavelengths of light a substance can absorb. Spectrophotometers measure transmitted light and compute from it the absorption. By extracting pigments from leaves and placing these samples into a spectrophotometer, scientists can identify which wavelengths of light an organism can absorb. Additional methods for the identification of plant pigments include various types of chromatography that separate the pigments by their relative affinities to solid and mobile phases.


Watch the video: The Calvin Cycle (November 2022).