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Photosynthesis: How It Works & Implications

Updated: Feb 23

Exploring the foundation of life.

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates. It sounds simple, but this biological alchemy supports nearly all life on Earth. To fully appreciate its significance, we'll first get a bit technical to understand the process, then zoom out and explore wider implications.

Different Photosynthetic Pathways

There are three types of photosynthesis that plants have evolved: C3, C4, and CAM. C3 is the most common. Each plant species generally uses only one of the three pathways, but some exceptions exist. Some plants display hybrid or intermediate pathways that vary with growing conditions, which may represent intermediate evolutionary steps or advanced adaptations.


The C3 Photosynthetic Process

At its core, photosynthesis is the art of capturing light energy to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) into glucose, a simple sugar, and oxygen (O2). This conversion happens through two main stages: the light-dependent reactions and the Calvin cycle.

Light-Dependent Reactions

The first stage of photosynthesis occurs in the thylakoid membranes of the chloroplasts, the specialized organelles in plant cells. Here's a step-by-step overview:

  1. Absorption of Light: Chlorophyll, the primary pigment in plants, absorbs sunlight, energizing electrons to a higher energy level.

  2. Water Splitting: Energized electrons move through the thylakoid membrane. This process begins when water molecules (H2O) are split into hydrogen ions (H+), electrons (e-), and oxygen (O2). The oxygen is released as a byproduct.

  3. ATP and NADPH Production: The high-energy electrons travel along the electron transport chain, a series of proteins embedded in the thylakoid membrane. Their energy is used to pump hydrogen ions into the thylakoid space, creating a concentration gradient. As the hydrogen ions flow back into the stroma (the surrounding fluid), they pass through an enzyme called ATP synthase, which uses this flow to generate ATP (adenosine triphosphate, a molecule used by cells as a universal energy currency) and NADPH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate, an electron carrier). These molecules will be used in the next stage of photosynthesis.

The Calvin Cycle (Light-Independent Reactions)

The second stage takes place in the stroma of the chloroplasts and does not require light directly, hence it's also known as the light-independent reactions or the dark phase. Here's how it unfolds:

  1. Carbon Fixation: The cycle begins when CO2 from the atmosphere is attached to a five-carbon molecule called ribulose bisphosphate (RuBP). This reaction is catalyzed by an enzyme called Rubisco, resulting in a six-carbon compound that immediately splits into two three-carbon molecules (3-phosphoglycerate).

  2. Reduction: ATP and NADPH produced in the light-dependent reactions provide the energy and electrons needed to convert the 3-phosphoglycerate molecules into glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate (G3P), a three-carbon sugar. Some of these G3P molecules can leave the cycle to be used in the synthesis of glucose and other organic compounds.

  3. Regeneration of RuBP: The rest of the G3P molecules are used in a series of reactions that regenerate RuBP, allowing the cycle to continue.

The Challenge of Photorespiration

Photorespiration is a parallel process that consumes oxygen and releases CO2, essentially undoing the work of photosynthesis. It occurs when the enzyme Rubisco, which normally helps fix CO2, mistakenly binds to oxygen in conditions of high temperature, high oxygen concentrations, or low CO2 levels. This mistake leads to a significant loss of energy and resources that could have been used for glucose production, decreasing the plant's photosynthetic efficiency.


The C4 Photosynthetic Process

C4 photosynthesis is an adaptation that allows plants to photosynthesize more efficiently under high light intensity, high temperatures, and dryness, where C3 photosynthesis becomes less efficient primarily due to increased photorespiration. The C4 pathway exhibits several key differences from the C3 pathway, specifically designed to minimize photorespiration and enhance the efficiency of CO2 fixation. Here’s how C4 photosynthesis differs:

Spatial Separation of Initial CO2 Fixation and the Calvin Cycle

  1. Initial CO2 Fixation: In C4 plants, the initial fixation of CO2 occurs in mesophyll cells, which are the outer cells of the leaf. Here, CO2 is combined with a three-carbon molecule, phosphoenolpyruvate (PEP), by the enzyme PEP carboxylase to form a four-carbon compound, such as oxaloacetate or malate. This step is efficient and does not result in photorespiration because PEP carboxylase has a high affinity for CO2 and does not react with O2.

  2. Transportation to Bundle-Sheath Cells: The four-carbon compounds are then transported to bundle-sheath cells, which are located around the vascular bundles (veins) of the leaf. This spatial separation is a distinctive feature of C4 photosynthesis.

  3. Release of CO2 and the Calvin Cycle: Inside the bundle-sheath cells, the four-carbon compounds release CO2, increasing its concentration around the enzyme Rubisco and thereby reducing the likelihood of photorespiration. The Calvin cycle then proceeds in these cells, utilizing the high concentration of CO2 to synthesize sugars efficiently.

Benefits and Ecological Adaptation

  • Reduced Photorespiration: By concentrating CO2 in bundle-sheath cells and minimizing its exposure to oxygen, C4 plants significantly reduce photorespiration, which is wasteful of energy and carbon.

  • Efficiency in High Light and Temperature: The C4 pathway allows plants to photosynthesize more efficiently under high light conditions and high temperatures, environments where C3 plants would suffer from excessive photorespiration.

  • Water Efficiency: C4 photosynthesis is also more water-efficient. By minimizing the opening of stomata (the pores on leaves through which gas exchange occurs), C4 plants reduce water loss through transpiration, making them well-adapted to arid environments.


The CAM Photosynthetic Process

Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) photosynthesis is a specialized adaptation found in certain plants that allows them to thrive in arid and water-scarce environments. Unlike C3 and C4 photosynthesis, which primarily differ in how and where CO2 is fixed, CAM photosynthesis is distinct for its temporal separation of CO2 uptake from the atmosphere and its fixation into sugars. This unique strategy enables CAM plants to minimize water loss while still performing photosynthesis efficiently under extreme conditions. Here's how CAM photosynthesis works:

Night Phase: CO2 Uptake and Storage

  1. Stomata Opening: CAM plants open their stomata at night, which is contrary to the behavior of C3 and C4 plants that typically open their stomata during the day. This nocturnal stomatal activity allows CAM plants to take in CO2 from the cool night air, reducing water loss through transpiration.

  2. CO2 Fixation: The CO2 absorbed at night is initially fixed into organic acids, such as malate, by the enzyme phosphoenolpyruvate carboxylase (PEPC). These organic acids are then stored in the vacuoles of the plant's cells.

Day Phase: CO2 Release and the Calvin Cycle

  1. Stomata Closure: During the day, CAM plants keep their stomata closed to conserve water. This is crucial in their native hot and dry environments.

  2. Release of CO2: The organic acids stored in the vacuoles are transported back into the cytoplasm where they are decarboxylated, releasing CO2. This increase in CO2 concentration facilitates photosynthesis even when the stomata are closed.

  3. Calvin Cycle: The released CO2 is then fixed by Rubisco and enters the Calvin cycle, similar to C3 and C4 photosynthesis, to produce glucose and other carbohydrates using the light-dependent reactions' products (ATP and NADPH).

Adaptations and Benefits

  • Water Efficiency: The most significant advantage of CAM photosynthesis is its high water-use efficiency. By opening their stomata only at night, CAM plants drastically reduce water loss, making them highly adapted to desert conditions or salt-stress environments.

  • Flexibility: Some CAM plants can adjust their photosynthetic pathway in response to environmental conditions, switching between CAM and C3 photosynthesis based on water availability. This flexibility is beneficial for surviving in environments with fluctuating water resources.

  • Energy Considerations: While CAM photosynthesis is water-efficient, it is not the most energy-efficient in terms of carbon fixation rates. The process of storing and then releasing CO2 requires additional energy, which can limit the growth rate of CAM plants compared to C3 and C4 plants under less stressful conditions.

CAM photosynthesis is found in a diverse range of plant species, including succulents like cacti and agaves, as well as some orchids and bromeliads. This adaptive mechanism highlights the incredible versatility of photosynthesis as a fundamental biological process, showcasing how plants have evolved to optimize energy capture and water use across vastly different environments.


Photosynthetic Pathway Summary

Plants have evolved different photosynthetic pathways to optimize efficiency under varying environmental conditions:

  • C3 Photosynthesis: C3 plants are the most common and include the majority of trees and temperate zone grasses. They thrive in cooler, wetter environments and are characterized by the direct fixation of CO2 into a three-carbon compound via the enzyme Rubisco. While efficient in moderate climates, it's prone to photorespiration under high temperatures and light levels. Examples include wheat, rice, soybeans, potatoes, tomatoes, conifer trees, fruit trees, and most deciduous trees.

  • C4 Photosynthesis: C4 plants are most efficient in hot, sunny environments where high water-use efficiency is beneficial. They minimize photorespiration by initially fixing CO2 into a four-carbon compound in mesophyll cells, then transporting it to bundle-sheath cells where the CO2 is released for use in the Calvin cycle. Examples include maize (corn), sugarcane, sorghum, millet, bermudagrass, saltbush, and mesquite trees.

  • CAM Photosynthesis: CAM plants are adapted to extremely arid environments where water conservation is critical. They fix CO2 at night and store it as an acid, then close their stomata during the day to reduce water loss, using the stored CO2 for photosynthesis. Examples include cacti, pineapple, agave, aloe vera, and jade plants.


The sunlight conversion efficiency of photosynthesis—the percentage of sunlight energy converted into chemical energy (biomass) by plants—varies among the C3, C4, and CAM photosynthetic pathways. C3 plants have an efficiency of about 0.5-1%. The more efficient C4 plants have an efficiency of 1-2%. CAM plants have a similar to slightly lower sunlight conversion efficiency as C3 plants, 0.5-1%, but they are significantly more water efficient. They use only 10-20% of the amount of water as C3 plants for the same amount of carbon fixed.



Life Support

Photosynthesis truly serves as the base of the pyramid that supports life on Earth. Plants turn solar energy into biomass. That biomass is consumed by herbivorous animals. Those herbivorous animals are consumed by carnivorous animals. When plants and animals die, they are consumed by fungi and microorganisms. Sitting at the base of the trophic pyramid, plants and their remarkable ability to convert energy from the sun into food biomass for other organisms make all life on our planet possible.

Apart from just making food for animals to eat, photosynthesis provides another indispensable service for life. Photosynthesis is the exact opposite chemical reaction as respiration – the process by which animals get energy.

Plants combine carbon dioxide and water to make carbohydrates and oxygen. Animals combine carbohydrates and oxygen to make carbon dioxide and water. These two essential life processes are perfectly complimentary. One cannot be sustained without the other.

Food Production

Producing food for 8 billion humans is no small task. Humans eat either plants or animals that eat plants. One of humanity's central challenges is figuring out how to optimize agricultural processes to produce more food from less resources – land, water, fertilizer. The biggest rate limiter to the amount of food we can produce is the sunlight conversion efficiency of photosynthesis.

Learning to work with and optimize this natural process can allow us to produce enough food to feed the world with less land use, deforestation, soil depletion, fertilizer waste, pesticides, chemical runoff, and environmental pollution.

Indoor Farms

The concept of indoor farming seems promising for growing certain types of food. In a controlled environment in a tall, sealed building, plants can grow using less land, water, and fertilizer and without pesticides or herbicides. There is no need for large diesel harvesting equipment, and water use is minuscule compared to traditional agriculture. High-efficiency LEDs provide the light for photosynthesis. By understanding the photosynthetic process, we can tune the wavelengths of light used in these LEDs to provide only what the plants need to achieve optimal growth and nothing more. Though not feasible for all crops, there's significant potential to cut down resource use and environmental impacts by photosynthesis optimization in indoor farms.


Liquid hydrocarbon fuels have a combination of properties that make them valuable energy carriers. They are very energy-dense and easily transported and stored. Most liquid hydrocarbon fuels are extracted from the ground as crude oil and refined. Additionally, biofuels such as ethanol are produced by fermenting corn, sorghum, barley, sugar cane, sugar beets, and other crops.

On the surface, biofuel sounds like an eco-friendly renewable source of energy, but biofuel production involves using up valuable land, water, and fertilizer that would otherwise be needed for food production. As a result, forests are often clear-cut to make room to grow crops for biofuel. This price might be tolerable if the energy return on investment (EROI) was sufficiently high. The EROI of ethanol produced from corn is only 1.04 (an EROI of 1.0 means no gain in energy), whereas the EROI of fossil hydrocarbons can be as high as 40.

The low EROI of biofuels is limited by photosynthetic efficiency of only about 1%. Compare that with another renewable energy source that also uses sunlight. Photovoltaic solar panels are more than 20% efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. When put into context, biomass energy seems more harmful than beneficial. This could be subject to change if photosynthesis efficiency itself could be optimized.


Understanding and improving the efficiency of photosynthesis can revolutionize food production and biofuel generation. By modifying crops to mimic the more efficient C4 or CAM pathways or by reducing the impacts of photorespiration, scientists aim to boost crop yields and create more sustainable energy sources.

Research into photosynthesis efficiency seeks to enhance agricultural productivity and sequester carbon in plants. The journey toward harnessing the full potential of photosynthesis is ongoing, offering promising avenues for addressing global challenges related to food security, energy sustainability, and environmental conservation.

Questions for you:

  • How do you think improving crop photosynthesis efficiency could impact global food security?

  • Reflecting on the water-use efficiency of CAM plants, what lessons could be applied to managing agricultural practices in arid regions?

  • Can you think of any innovative ways to utilize plants with different photosynthetic pathways in gardening or landscaping to improve sustainability?

  • How might research into artificial photosynthesis or genetically modifying photosynthetic pathways influence future energy sources?


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