Oct. 20, 2021
Oct. 7, 2021
Photosynthesis is undoubtedly one of the most important physiological processes on earth. It is the process by which plants, algae, and bacteria produce food. Photosynthesis makes these organisms the primary producers of the earth, as all other organisms feed on them for their energy source. People depend on this important process for most of their needs: food, fiber, fuel, timber, etc. Thus, many scientists are considering the ways photosynthesis can be used to both combat climate change and increase productivity for a growing population. In 2021, the study of photosynthesis is as important as ever.
Photosynthesis is the process by which organisms with chlorophyll capture light and use its energy to combine water and carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce simple carbohydrates and oxygen. There are two stages in the process:
There are three kinds of plants depending on photosynthesis: C3, C4 and crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM).
If the end product is a three-carbon compound, the plants are called C3. Both stages of photosynthesis occur in the same chloroplast. During hot or dry weather, when the stomata remain closed, photorespiration occurs. Oxygen produced by photosynthesis reacts with the photosynthetic enzyme, Rubisco, hindering the production of C3 carbohydrates. Thus, the efficiency of water-use and photosynthesis can be low in C3 plants. Examples of C3 plants are rice, wheat, soybeans, and all trees; 85% of plants are C3.
In hot and dry places, plants, which often keep stomata closed, have evolved a different system to use the limited amount of CO2 coming in. CO2 is fixed in the stomata of the mesophyll to produce C4 carbohydrates, which is transported to the chloroplast of another cell in the sheath for the Calvin Cycle to escape photorespiration. Examples of C4 plants are sorghum, maize, ragi, switchgrass, etc.
In places with extreme heat and drought, like deserts, plants open their stomata only in the night, when CO2 can enter. So, in these plants, CO2 is fixed in the night and stored in a vacuole. In the day, the Calvin Cycle occurs in the same chloroplast and avoids photorespiration. Examples are succulents such as cacti.
Bacteria have no organelles but do have chlorophyll that aids the two steps of photosynthesis. Also, there are sulphur bacteria which use hydrogen sulphide as the hydrogen source for their photosynthesis.
Though photosynthesis is important, many of its aspects and reactions are still unknown. Not surprisingly, scientists are trying to learn more about it to solve the many challenges facing us today.
Photosynthesis in many cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) uses near infrared light by chloroplast f, instead of red of the visible light, and can take place in dark or shaded places. Light beyond the red spectrum of light can damage plants. A deeper study into how the cyanobacteria avoid this damage can help in producing new kinds of crop plants.
Knowledge of this new photosynthesis can widen the scope of places to search for alien life in distant planets.
Scientists are using the chemicals associated with photosynthesis and charging them with electrical energy in a solar cell. The cells fix CO2 to produce fuels like methanol at micro-levels. Attempts are being made to scale-up carbon capture through this novel method.
Earlier photo-inhibition of photosystem-I or damage due to excessive exposure to sunlight was considered harmful for the productivity of the plant and crop yield. A Finnish group has shown that photo-inhibition of photosystem-I can lessen damages to the photosystem-II and also contain further damage to itself. A better understanding of processes helps in targeting future research to boost crop yield.
Rubisco is the main CO2-fixing enzyme and is, therefore, vital for plant productivity. Yet, according to leading plant science Lecturer Amanda Cavanagh, even 75 years after Rubisco was first isolated from spinach leaves, there is much we do not know about their functioning.
Rubisco is made up of eight small subunits that interact in heretofore unknown ways. In 2020, Khumsupan et al. created mutants of four of these subunits using gene engineering. With the help of the mutants, the scientists were able to find how the subunits influenced Rubisco's functioning, thereby advancing knowledge of photosynthesis.
Scientists are working to utilize the intricate mechanisms of plant energy production for use in human systems. They are doing this by using natural and artificial photosynthesis.
Research is being conducted on the use of microalgae for the production of next generation solar biotechnologies. Photosynthesis uses either a linear electron flow or cyclic electron flow (CEF) depending on changing light conditions. A large compound has now been identified as the CEF complex that plays a major role in fine-tuning the balance of these two processes. The complex found in micro-algae and plants has remained unchanged for millions of years and has been used to adapt to varying light and energy levels. By understanding how micro-algae optimize photosynthesis, their production can be increased to supply more energy and food.
Scientists from the University of Cambridge have tested a laboratory prototype of novel solar cells that can conduct artificial photosynthesis to produce solar energy. They used a mixture of photocatalysts in a sheet of semiconductors. In the presence of sunlight and water, these solar cells produce formic acid. This product can be easily stored and converted to produce hydrogen fuel.
The advantage of the prototype is that it is being produced cheaply and easily. Hence, scaling the prototype to produce regular-sized panels should not be a problem.
Research groups in Germany and France have produced artificial cell-sized chloroplasts that use greenhouse carbon dioxide and light. The semi-synthetic membranes were encapsulated in cell-like droplets. The artificial chloroplasts contain novel enzymes and their reactions fix CO2 100 times faster than natural photosynthesis.
Scientists think this new product has applications in material science, medicine, and biotechnology.
With the human population rising steeply, scientists are looking for ways to improve plant yield, besides experimenting with fertilizer and irrigation use efficiency. They are looking deeper into plants, especially at photosynthesis. Some of the new approaches to increasing crop growth and yield are covered below.
Plants use only 1% of the sunlight that falls on them. Photosystem I and II, which are involved in the absorption of light, are therefore subsets of photosynthetic reactions that are of great interest. Scientists aim to understand these complex and little known processes in the hope of increasing light storage by just another 1% to produce enough food, fuel, and energy for all people.
C3 plants which suffer from photorespiration can be improved to increase growth and produce more. Scientists are trying many approaches at the genetic level to achieve this aim, including a short-cut and finding C4 enzymes.
Growers of fruits, vegetables, and flowers seek to improve the rate of photosynthesis in greenhouses by using LEDs with customised light colour and intensity for each species. Combinations of red and blue lights are primarily used to improve light absorption and plant growth.
One of the methods increases the amount of the enzyme Rubisco in C4 plants to raise CO2 fixation and improve plant growth and yield has proved successful in maize.
Many people associate increasing CO2 levels due to climate change with the potential for increased food yield, but it is not that simple. Since C4 are already adapted to use more CO2, increased levels of this gas will have no effect on them or increase their yield. However, under conditions of higher CO2, higher rates of photosynthesis will occur in C3 plants such as rice and wheat.
The many components and environmental factors that are important for photosynthesis come into play during climate change and its ability to fix carbon.
The increased interest in photosynthesis to improve crop yield and mitigate climate change requires precise measurement of this important physiological process. The CI-340 Handheld Photosynthesis System from CID Bio-Science provides instant and accurate readings. They can be used to measure all kinds of leaves from conifers to broadleaves in farms, laboratories, and natural ecosystems.
Science Writer, CID Bio-Science
Ph.D. Ecology and Environmental Science, B.Sc Agriculture
Feature Photo by Andrey Tikhonovskiy.
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