O 2 and Other High-Energy Molecules in Photosynthesis: Why Plants Need Two Photosystems

Life (Basel). 2021 Nov 5;11(11):1191. doi: 10.3390/life11111191.


The energetics of photosynthesis in plants have been re-analyzed in a framework that represents the relatively high energy of O2 correctly. Starting with the photon energy exciting P680 and "loosening an electron", the energy transfer and electron transport are represented in a comprehensive, self-explanatory sequence of redox energy transfer and release diagrams. The resulting expanded Z-scheme explicitly shows charge separation as well as important high-energy species such as O2, TyrZ˙, and P680+˙, whose energies are not apparent in the classical Z-scheme of photosynthesis. Crucially, the energetics of the three important forms of P680 and of P700 are clarified. The relative free energies of oxidized and reduced species are shown explicitly in kJ/mol, not encrypted in volts. Of the chemical energy produced in photosynthesis, more is stored in O2 than in glucose. The expanded Z-scheme introduced here provides explanatory power lacking in the classical scheme. It shows that P680* is energetically boosted to P680+˙ by the favorable electron affinity of pheophytin and that Photosystem I (PSI) has insufficient energy to split H2O and produce O2 because P700* is too easily ionized. It also avoids the Z-scheme's bewildering implication, according to the "electron waterfall" concept, that H2O gives off electrons that spontaneously flow to chlorophyll while releasing energy. The new analysis explains convincingly why plants need two different photosystems in tandem: (i) PSII mostly extracts hydrogen from H2O, producing PQH2 (plastoquinol), and generates the energetically expensive product O2; this step provides little energy directly to the plant; (ii) PSI produces chemical energy for the organism, by pumping protons against a concentration gradient and producing less reluctant hydrogen donors. It also documents that electron transport and energy transfer occur in opposite directions and do not involve redox voltages. The analysis makes it clear that the high-energy species in photosynthesis are unstable, electron-deficient species such as P680+˙ and TyrZ˙, not putative high-energy electrons.

Keywords: bioenergetics; charge separation; electron-transport chains; high-energy molecules; photosynthesis; photosystems.