But first, we’re back to that word balance, aren’t we! The real message in all of this is that when lifecycle, in this case photosynthesis, gets out of balance, we begin to witness erratic behavior. Just think of the cost to the world economy, the loss of life, the effect on economics. Balance is so critical. And we sure don’t have it today. Back to the topic, photosynthesis.
In large measure, the world, yes, the world, runs on photosynthesis. It’s really a miracle drug. Very simply, green plants take carbon from the carbon dioxide in the air and hydrogen and oxygen from water to make sugar. This makes food that builds tissue. Voila! Wikipedia is a bit more precise:
Photosynthesis is a process used by plants and other organisms to convert light energy into chemical energy that can later be released to fuel the organisms’ activities (energy transformation). This chemical energy is stored in carbohydrate molecules, such as sugars, which are synthesized from carbon dioxide and water – hence the name photosynthesis, from the Greek, phos, “light,” and synthesis, “putting together. In most cases, oxygen is also released as a waste product. Most plants, most algae, and cyanobacteria perform photosynthesis; such organisms are called photoautotrophs. Photosynthesis is largely responsible for producing and maintaining the oxygen content of the Earth’s atmosphere, and supplies all of the organic compounds and most of the energy necessary for life on Earth.
As much as I love the Greek, you won’t believe the next paragraph in Wikipedia. Mr. Editor, please, this is not fiction. “In plants, long term storage in the form of only sugars is produced by a subsequent sequence of light – independent reactions called the Calvin cycle.” So, since I’ve been around before the Greeks, I’m not sure why people, dogs and cats, don’t listen to my message. Okay, Calvin humor.
Photosynthesis begins when sunlight strikes molecules of chlorophyll bundled into packets called chloroplasts within the leaves. I realize this is Biology 101, but it’s important because the photosynthetic process is definitely being affected by climate change. So, to continue for a bit, chlorophyll is green. That’s because it “absorbs energy mostly from the blue and red ends of the spectrum of visible light, reflecting yellow and green wavelengths back to our eyes.” What happens when sunlight hits the green leaf is quite complex, but here’s a simplified explanation:
A photon of sunlight strikes a molecule of chlorophyll and its energy is escorted through a chain of systems to a reaction center where the energy is transferred to an electron. This high-energy electron is used to reduce water to H+ and O2. The O2 is given off as oxygen gas. Nearly all of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere has come from green plants, cyanobacteria or green algae. The H+ ions are used to create two energy storage compounds, called NADPH and ATP, that fuel the metabolic processes of plant cells. It’s this energy that’s also used to create sugar from CO2 and water. Because sunlight comes and goes through day and night, and fluctuates under clear skies and heavy cloud cover, complex life could not have evolved without the photosynthesis that permits solar energy to be stored for use by plants when the sun isn’t shining.
The fascinating part, at least to me, is the enormous amount of energy being generated by photosynthesis. If you do the research you’ll learn that photosynthesis, globally, generates about 130 trillion watts, which is almost three times the current power consumption of the entire human civilization. Further, this is only “one tenth of one percent of the total solar energy that is available” for us here on earth. Read that again because it explains why we’re so interested in solar. There’s so much available! There are a couple of other points to keep in mind: one, the effect that climate change can have on the balance of photosynthesis. As you have read above, while the process is simple, it is also extremely delicate. And, two, the gigantic opportunity to attempt to harness the energy of the sun is obviously attractive because it is free. Interestingly, I just read that we have three times the number of people working in the solar energy sector than we have in the coal industry. Surely there’s a message here!
In spite of all this potential energy, there are some shortcomings. First, it isn’t always sunny. Second, sunlight can have “bursts” of intensity, which can affect the very fragile photosynthetic process. Scientists have been looking for ways to stabilize and improve the efficiency of sunlight, which as you now realize is the catalyst for photosynthesis. Not to drag you through more biology, suffice it to say that a number of research laboratories are tweaking and modifying enzymes so that plant growth will be more stable regardless of sunlight. Fussing with nature and the natural process is tricky, and while there is progress, we are still “light” years away from growing crops that have been enhanced by “artificial photosynthesis.” For sure, photosynthesis, as we know it today, is the essence of life.
In my next column I plan to discuss the incredible growth of solar energy and why the technology is in harmony with photosynthesis. Indeed, the more things change and the more out of balance we become, the greater the need for corrective counter activities that attempt to enhance the natural balance of LIFE!
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is