Overview of Photosynthesis

Photosynthesis is essential to all life on earth; both plants and animals depend on it. It is the only biological process that can capture energy that originates from sunlight and converts it into chemical compounds (carbohydrates) that every organism uses to power its metabolism. It is also a source of oxygen necessary for many living organisms. In brief, the energy of sunlight is “captured” to energize electrons, whose energy is then stored in the covalent bonds of sugar molecules. How long lasting and stable are those covalent bonds? The energy extracted today by the burning of coal and petroleum products represents sunlight energy captured and stored by photosynthesis 350 to 200 million years ago during the Carboniferous Period.

Plants, algae, and a group of bacteria called cyanobacteria are the only organisms capable of performing photosynthesis (Figure). Because they use light to manufacture their own food, they are called photoautotrophs (literally, “self-feeders using light”). Other organisms, such as animals, fungi, and most other bacteria, are termed heterotrophs (“other feeders”), because they must rely on the sugars produced by photosynthetic organisms for their energy needs. A third very interesting group of bacteria synthesize sugars, not by using sunlight’s energy, but by extracting energy from inorganic chemical compounds. For this reason, they are referred to as chemoautotrophs.

Photo a shows a fern leaf. Photo b shows thick, green algae growing on water. Micrograph c shows cyanobacteria, which are green rods about 10 microns long. Photo D shows black smoke pouring out of a deep sea vent covered with red worms. Micrograph E shows rod-shaped bacteria about 1.5 microns long.
Photoautotrophs including (a) plants, (b) algae, and (c) cyanobacteria synthesize their organic compounds via photosynthesis using sunlight as an energy source. Cyanobacteria and planktonic algae can grow over enormous areas in water, at times completely covering the surface. In a (d) deep sea vent, chemoautotrophs, such as these (e) thermophilic bacteria, capture energy from inorganic compounds to produce organic compounds. The ecosystem surrounding the vents has a diverse array of animals, such as tubeworms, crustaceans, and octopuses that derive energy from the bacteria. (credit a: modification of work by Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; credit b: modification of work by "eutrophication&hypoxia"/Flickr; credit c: modification of work by NASA; credit d: University of Washington, NOAA; credit e: modification of work by Mark Amend, West Coast and Polar Regions Undersea Research Center, UAF, NOAA)

The importance of photosynthesis is not just that it can capture sunlight’s energy. After all, a lizard sunning itself on a cold day can use the sun’s energy to warm up in a process called behavioral thermoregulation. In contrast, photosynthesis is vital because it evolved as a way to store the energy from solar radiation (the “photo-” part) to energy in the carbon-carbon bonds of carbohydrate molecules (the “-synthesis” part). Those carbohydrates are the energy source that heterotrophs use to power the synthesis of ATP via respiration. Therefore, photosynthesis powers 99 percent of Earth’s ecosystems. When a top predator, such as a wolf, preys on a deer (Figure), the wolf is at the end of an energy path that went from nuclear reactions on the surface of the sun, to visible light, to photosynthesis, to vegetation, to deer, and finally to the wolf.

A photo shows deer running through tall grass beside a forest.
The energy stored in carbohydrate molecules from photosynthesis passes through the food chain. The predator that eats these deer receives a portion of the energy that originated in the photosynthetic vegetation that the deer consumed. (credit: modification of work by Steve VanRiper, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)