Leaves and leaf structure

Plants are the only photosynthetic organisms to have leaves (and not all plants have leaves). A leaf may be viewed as a solar collector crammed full of photosynthetic cells.

The raw materials of photosynthesis, water and carbon dioxide, enter the cells of the leaf, and the products of photosynthesis, sugar and oxygen, leave the leaf.

Water enters the root and is transported up to the leaves through specialized plant cells known as xylem vessels. Land plants must guard against drying out and so have evolved specialized structures known as stomata to allow gas to enter and leave the leaf. Carbon dioxide cannot pass through the protective waxy layer covering the leaf (cuticle), but it can enter the leaf through the stoma (the singular of stomata), flanked by two guard cells. Likewise, oxygen produced during photosynthesis can only pass out of the leaf through the opened stomata. Unfortunately for the plant, while these gases are moving between the inside and outside of the leaf, a great deal of water is also lost. Cottonwood trees, for example, will lose 100 gallons (about 450 dm3) of water per hour during hot desert days.

The structure of the chloroplast and photosynthetic membranes

The thylakoid is the structural unit of photosynthesis. Both photosynthetic prokaryotes and eukaryotes have these flattened sacs/vesicles containing photosynthetic chemicals. Only eukaryotes have chloroplasts with a surrounding membrane.

Thylakoids are stacked like pancakes in stacks known collectively as grana. The areas between grana are referred to as stroma. While the mitochondrion has two membrane systems, the chloroplast has three, forming three compartments.


Structure of a chloroplast

Stages of photosynthesis

When chlorophyll a absorbs light energy, an electron gains energy and is ‘excited’. The excited electron is transferred to another molecule (called a primary electron acceptor). The chlorophyll molecule is oxidized (loss of electron) and has a positive charge. Photoactivation of chlorophyll a results in the splitting of water molecules and the transfer of energy to ATP and reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP).

The chemical reactions involved include:

  • condensation reactions – responsible for water molecules splitting out, including phosphorylation (the addition of a phosphate group to an organic compound)
  • oxidation/reduction (redox) reactions involving electron transfer

Photosynthesis is a two stage process.

The Light dependent reactions, a light-dependent series of reactions which occur in the grana, and require the direct energy of light to make energy-carrier molecules that are used in the second process:

  • light energy is trapped by chlorophyll to make ATP (photophosphorylation)
  • at the same time water is split into oxygen, hydrogen ions and free electrons:2H2O    4H+ + O+ 4e (photolysis)
  • the electrons then react with a carrier molecule nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP), changing it from its oxidised state (NADP+) to its reduced state (NADPH):NADP+ + 2e + 2H+    NADPH + H+

The light-independent reactions, a light-independent series of reactions which occur in the stroma of the chloroplasts, when the products of the light reaction, ATP and NADPH, are used to make carbohydrates from carbon dioxide (reduction); initially glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate (a 3-carbon atom molecule) is formed.

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