The light-dependent reactions

When light energy is absorbed by a chlorophyll molecule its electrons gain energy and move to higher energy levels in the molecule (photoexcitation). Sufficient energy ionises the molecule, with the electron being ‘freed’ leaving a positively charged chlorophyll ion. This is called photoionisation.

In whole chloroplasts each chlorophyll molecule is associated with an electron acceptor and an electron donor. These three molecules make up the core of a photosystem. Two electrons from a photoionised chlorophyll molecule are transferred to the electron acceptor. The positively charged chlorophyll ion then takes a pair of electrons from a neighbouring electron donor such as water.

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 The effect of light on chlorophyll

An electron transfer system (a series of chemical reactions) carries the two electrons to and fro across the thylakoid membrane. The energy to drive these processes comes from two photosystems:

  • Photosystem II (PSII) (P680)
  • Photosystem I (PSI) (P700)

It may seem confusing, but PSII occurs before PSI. It is named because it was the second to be discovered and hence named second.

The energy changes accompanying the two sets of changes make a Z shape when drawn out. This is why the electron transfer process is sometimes called the Z scheme. Key to the scheme is that sufficient energy is released during electron transfer to enable ATP to be made from ADP and phosphate.

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 Synthesis of ATP from ADP

A condensation reaction has led to phosphorylation.

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 PSII and PSI: the Z scheme

Non-cyclic phosphorylation (the Z scheme)

Both adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and NADPH are produced.

In the first photosystem (Photosystem II, PSII):

  • photoionisation of chlorophyll transfers excited electrons to an electron acceptor
  • photolysis of water (an electron donor) produces oxygen molecules, hydrogen ions and electrons, and the latter are transferred to the positively-charged chlorophyll
  • the electron acceptor passes the electrons to the electron transport chain; the final acceptor is photosystem PSI
  • further absorbed light energy increases the energy of the electrons, sufficient for the reduction of NADP+ to NADPH

The oxidised form of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP+)

The reduced form of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH)


light energy as absorbed by a chlorophyll molecule its electrons
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