photosynthesis (fō´tōsĬn´thəsĬs), process in which green plants, algae, and cyanobacteria utilize the energy of sunlight to manufacture carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water in the presence of chlorophyll. Some of the plants that lack chlorophyll, e.g., the Indian pipe, secure their nutrients from organic material, as do animals, and a few bacteria manufacture their own carbohydrates with hydrogen and energy obtained from inorganic compounds (e.g., hydrogen sulfide) in a process called chemosynthesis. However, the vast majority of plants contain chlorophyll—concentrated, in the higher land plants, in the leaves.
In these plants water is absorbed by the roots and carried to the leaves by the xylem, and carbon dioxide is obtained from air that enters the leaves through the stomata and diffuses to the cells containing chlorophyll. The green pigment chlorophyll is uniquely capable of converting the active energy of light into a latent form that can be stored (in food) and used when needed.
The Photosynthetic Process
The initial process in photosynthesis is the decomposition of water (H2O) into oxygen, which is released, and hydrogen; direct light is required for this process. The hydrogen and the carbon and oxygen of carbon dioxide (CO2) are then converted into a series of increasingly complex compounds that result finally in a stable organic compound, glucose (C6H12O6), and water. This phase of photosynthesis utilizes stored energy and therefore can proceed in the dark. The simplified equation used to represent this overall process is 6CO2+12H2O+energy=C6H12O6+6O2+6H2O. In general, the results of this process are the reverse of those in respiration, in which carbohydrates are oxidized to release energy, with the production of carbon dioxide and water.
The intermediary reactions before glucose is formed involve several enzymes, which react with the coenzyme ATP (see adenosine triphosphate) to produce various molecules. Studies using radioactive carbon have indicated that among the intermediate products are three-carbon molecules from which acids and amino acids, as well as glucose, are derived. This suggests that fats and proteins are also products of photosynthesis. The main product, glucose, is the fundamental building block of carbohydrates (e.g., sugars, starches, and cellulose). The water-soluble sugars (e.g., sucrose and maltose) are used for immediate energy. The insoluble starches are stored as tiny granules in various parts of the plant—chiefly the leaves, roots (including tubers), and fruits—and can be broken down again when energy is needed. Cellulose is used to build the rigid cell walls that are the principal supporting structure of plants.
Importance of Photosynthesis
Animals and plants both synthesize fats and proteins from carbohydrates; thus glucose is a basic energy source for all living organisms. The oxygen released (with water vapor, in transpiration) as a photosynthetic byproduct, principally of phytoplankton, provides most of the atmospheric oxygen vital to respiration in plants and animals, and animals in turn produce carbon dioxide necessary to plants. Photosynthesis can therefore be considered the ultimate source of life for nearly all plants and animals by providing the source of energy that drives all their metabolic processes.
See I. Asimov, Photosynthesis (1969); R. M. Devlin and A. V. Barker, Photosynthesis (1972); O. Morton, Eating the Sun (2009).