What is Photosynthesis

When you get hungry, you grab a snack from your fridge or pantry. But what can plants do when they get hungry? You are probably aware that plants need sunlight, water, and a home (like soil) to grow, but where do they get their food? They make it themselves!

Plants are called autotrophs because they can use energy from light to synthesize, or make, their own food source. Many people believe they are “feeding” a plant when they put it in soil, water it, or place it outside in the Sun, but none of these things are considered food. Rather, plants use sunlight, water, and the gases in the air to make glucose, which is a form of sugar that plants need to survive. This process is called photosynthesis and is performed by all plants, algae, and even some microorganisms. To perform photosynthesis, plants need three things: carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight.

Infographic showing photosynthesisBy taking in water (H2O) through the roots, carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, and light energy from the Sun, plants can perform photosynthesis to make glucose (sugars) and oxygen (O2). CREDIT: mapichai/Shutterstock.com 


Just like you, plants need to take in gases in order to live. Animals take in gases through a process called respiration. During the respiration process, animals inhale all of the gases in the atmosphere, but the only gas that is retained and not immediately exhaled is oxygen. Plants, however, take in and use carbon dioxide gas
for photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide enters through tiny holes in a plant’s leaves, flowers, branches, stems, and roots. Plants also require water to make their food. Depending on the environment, a plant’s access to water will vary. For example, desert plants, like a cactus, have less available water than a lilypad in a pond, but every photosynthetic organism has some sort of adaptation, or special structure, designed to collect water. For most plants, roots are responsible for absorbing water. 

The last requirement for photosynthesis is an important one because it provides the energy to make sugar. How does a plant take carbon dioxide and water molecules and make a food molecule? The Sun! The energy from light causes a chemical reaction that breaks down the molecules of carbon dioxide and water and reorganizes them to make the sugar (glucose) and oxygen gas. After the sugar is produced, it is then broken down by the mitochondria into energy that can be used for growth and repair. The oxygen that is produced is released from the same tiny holes through which the carbon dioxide entered. Even the oxygen that is released serves another purpose. Other organisms, such as animals, use oxygen to aid in their survival. 

If we were to write a formula for photosynthesis, it would look like this: 

6CO2 + 6H2O + Light energy → C6H12O6 (sugar) + 6O

The whole process of photosynthesis is a transfer of energy from the Sun to a plant. In each sugar molecule created, there is a little bit of the energy from the Sun, which the plant can either use or store for later. 

Imagine a pea plant. If that pea plant is forming new pods, it requires a large amount of sugar energy to grow larger. This is similar to how you eat food to grow taller and stronger. But rather than going to the store and buying groceries, the pea plant will use sunlight to obtain the energy to build sugar. When the pea pods
are fully grown, the plant may no longer need as much sugar and will store it in its cells. A hungry rabbit comes along and decides to eat some of the plant, which provides the energy that allows the rabbit to hop back to its home. Where did the rabbit’s energy come from? Consider the process of photosynthesis. With the help of carbon dioxide and water, the pea pod used the energy from sunlight to construct the sugar molecules. When the rabbit ate the pea pod, it indirectly received energy from sunlight, which was stored in the sugar molecules in the plant. 

Collage of bread and wheatWe can thank photosynthesis for bread! Wheat grains, like the ones pictured, are grown in huge fields. When they are harvested, they are ground into a powder that we might recognize as flour. CREDIT: Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock.com 


Humans, other animals, fungi, and some microorganisms cannot make food in their own bodies like autotrophs, but they still rely on photosynthesis. Through the transfer of energy from the Sun to plants, plants build sugars that humans consume to drive our daily activities. Even when we eat things like chicken or fish, we are transferring energy from the Sun into our bodies because, at some point, one organism consumed a photosynthetic organism (e.g., the fish ate algae). So the next time you grab a snack to replenish your energy, thank the Sun for it! 


This is an excerpt from the Structure and Function unit of our curriculum product line, Science and Technology ConceptsTM (STC). Please visit our publisher, Carolina Biological, to learn more. 

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