After the energy from the sun is converted into chemical energy and temporarily stored in ATP and NADPH molecules, the cell has the fuel needed to build carbohydrate molecules for long-term energy storage. The products of the light-dependent reactions, ATP and NADPH, have lifespans in the range of millionths of seconds, whereas the products of the light-independent reactions (carbohydrates and other forms of reduced carbon) can survive for hundreds of millions of years. The carbohydrate molecules made will have a backbone of carbon atoms. Where does the carbon come from? It comes from carbon dioxide, the gas that is a waste product of respiration in microbes, fungi, plants, and animals.
In plants, carbon dioxide (CO2) enters the leaves through stomata, where it diffuses over short distances through intercellular spaces until it reaches the mesophyll cells. Once in the mesophyll cells, CO2 diffuses into the stroma of the chloroplast—the site of light-independent reactions of photosynthesis. These reactions actually have several names associated with them. Another term, the Calvin cycle, is named for the man who discovered it, and because these reactions function as a cycle. Others call it the Calvin-Benson cycle to include the name of another scientist involved in its discovery. The most outdated name is dark reactions, because light is not directly required (Figure 1). However, the term dark reaction can be misleading because it implies incorrectly that the reaction only occurs at night or is independent of light, which is why most scientists and instructors no longer use it.
The light-independent reactions of the Calvin cycle can be organized into three basic stages: fixation, reduction, and regeneration.
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 bisphosphate carboxylase (RuBisCO), and three molecules of ribulose bisphosphate (RuBP), as shown in Figure 2. RuBP has five atoms of carbon, flanked by two phosphates.
In stage 1, the enzyme RuBisCO incorporates carbon dioxide into an organic molecule, 3-PGA. In stage 2, the organic molecule is reduced using electrons supplied by NADPH. In stage 3, RuBP, the molecule that starts the cycle, is regenerated so that the cycle can continue. 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.
Which of the following statements is true?
- In photosynthesis, oxygen, carbon dioxide, ATP, and NADPH are reactants. GA3P and water are products.
- In photosynthesis, chlorophyll, water, and carbon dioxide are reactants. GA3P and oxygen are products.
- In photosynthesis, water, carbon dioxide, ATP, and NADPH are reactants. RuBP and oxygen are products.
- In photosynthesis, water and carbon dioxide are reactants. GA3P and oxygen are products.
RuBisCO catalyzes a reaction between CO2 and RuBP. For each CO2 molecule that reacts with one RuBP, two molecules of another compound (3-PGA) form. PGA has three carbons 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 3CO2 + 15 atoms from 3RuBP = 18 atoms in 3 atoms of 3-PGA). This process is called carbon fixation, because CO2 is “fixed” from an inorganic form into organic molecules.
Stage 2: Reduction
ATP and NADPH are used to convert the six molecules of 3-PGA into six molecules of a chemical called glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate (G3P). That is a reduction reaction because it involves the gain of electrons by 3-PGA. Recall that a reduction is the gain of an electron by an atom or molecule. Six molecules of both ATP and NADPH are used. For ATP, energy is released with the loss of the terminal phosphate atom, converting it into ADP; for NADPH, both energy and a hydrogen atom are lost, converting it into NADP+. Both of these molecules return to the nearby light-dependent reactions to be reused and reenergized.
Stage 3: Regeneration
Interestingly, at this point, only one of the G3P molecules leaves the Calvin cycle and is sent to the cytoplasm to contribute to the formation of other compounds needed by the plant. Because the G3P exported from the chloroplast has three carbon atoms, it takes three “turns” of the Calvin cycle to fix enough net carbon to export one G3P. But each turn makes two G3Ps, thus three turns make six G3Ps. One is exported while the remaining five G3P molecules remain in the cycle and are used to regenerate RuBP, which enables the system to prepare for more CO2 to be fixed. Three more molecules of ATP are used in these regeneration reactions.
Evolution of Photosynthesis
During the evolution of photosynthesis, a major shift occurred from the bacterial type of photosynthesis that involves only one photosystem and is typically anoxygenic (does not generate oxygen) into modern oxygenic (does generate oxygen) photosynthesis, employing two photosystems. This modern oxygenic photosynthesis is used by many organisms—from giant tropical leaves in the rainforest to tiny cyanobacterial cells—and the process and components of this photosynthesis remain largely the same. Photosystems absorb light and use electron transport chains to convert energy into the chemical energy of ATP and NADH. The subsequent light-independent reactions then assemble carbohydrate molecules with this energy.
Photosynthesis in desert plants has evolved adaptations that conserve water. In the harsh dry heat, every drop of water must be used to survive. Because stomata must open to allow for the uptake of CO2, water escapes from the leaf during active photosynthesis. Desert plants have evolved processes to conserve water and deal with harsh conditions. A more efficient use of CO2 allows plants to adapt to living with less water. Some plants such as cacti (Figure 3) can prepare materials for photosynthesis during the night by a temporary carbon fixation/storage process, because opening the stomata at this time conserves water due to cooler temperatures. In addition, cacti have evolved the ability to carry out low levels of photosynthesis without opening stomata at all, a mechanism to face extremely dry periods.