Factors Affecting Photosynthesis

Factors affecting photosynthesis

There are three main factors affecting photosynthesis and several corollary factors. The three main are:  

Light irradiance and wavelength

Carbon dioxide concentration


Total photosynthesis is limited by a range of environmental factors. These include the amount of light available, the amount of leaf area a plant has to capture light (shading by other plants is a major limitation of photosynthesis), rate at which carbon dioxide can be supplied to the chloroplasts to support photosynthesis, the availability of water, and the availability of suitable temperatures for carrying out photosynthesis.

Light intensity (irradiance), wavelength and temperature

The process of photosynthesis provides the main input of free energy into the biosphere, and is one of four main ways in which radiation is important for plant life.

The radiation climate within plant communities is extremely variable, with both time and space.

In the early 20th century, Frederick Blackman and Gabrielle Matthaei investigated the effects of light intensity (irradiance) and temperature on the rate of carbon assimilation.

  • At constant temperature, the rate of carbon assimilation varies with irradiance, increasing as the irradiance increases, but reaching a plateau at higher irradiance.
  • At low irradiance, increasing the temperature has little influence on the rate of carbon assimilation. At constant high irradiance, the rate of carbon assimilation increases as the temperature is increased.

These two experiments illustrate several important points: First, it is known that, in general, photochemical reactions are not affected by temperature. However, these experiments clearly show that temperature affects the rate of carbon assimilation, so there must be two sets of reactions in the full process of carbon assimilation. These are the light-dependent ‘photochemical’ temperature-independent stage, and the light-independent, temperature-dependent stage. Second, Blackman’s experiments illustrate the concept of limiting factors. Another limiting factor is the wavelength of light. Cyanobacteria, which reside several meters underwater, cannot receive the correct wavelengths required to cause photoinduced charge separation in conventional photosynthetic pigments. To combat this problem, a series of proteins with different pigments surround the reaction center. This unit is called a phycobilisome.

Carbon dioxide levels and photorespiration

As carbon dioxide concentrations rise, the rate at which sugars are made by the light-independent reactions increases until limited by other factors. RuBisCO, the enzyme that captures carbon dioxide in the light-independent reactions, has a binding affinity for both carbon dioxide and oxygen. When the concentration of carbon dioxide is high, RuBisCO will fix carbon dioxide. However, if the carbon dioxide concentration is low, RuBisCO will bind oxygen instead of carbon dioxide. This process, called photorespiration, uses energy, but does not produce sugars.

RuBisCO oxygenase activity is disadvantageous to plants for several reasons:

  • One product of oxygenase activity is phosphoglycolate (2 carbon) instead of 3-phosphoglycerate (3 carbon). Phosphoglycolate cannot be metabolized by the Calvin-Benson cycle and represents carbon lost from the cycle. A high oxygenase activity, therefore, drains the sugars that are required to recycle ribulose 5-bisphosphate and for the continuation of the Calvin-Benson cycle.
  • Phosphoglycolate is quickly metabolized to glycolate that is toxic to a plant at a high concentration; it inhibits photosynthesis.
  • Salvaging glycolate is an energetically expensive process that uses the glycolate pathway, and only 75% of the carbon is returned to the Calvin-Benson cycle as 3-phosphoglycerate. The reactions also produce ammonia (NH3), which is able to diffuse out of the plant, leading to a loss of nitrogen. A highly simplified summary is:

2 glycolate + ATP → 3-phosphoglycerate + carbon dioxide + ADP + NH3

The salvaging pathway for the products of RuBisCO oxygenase activity is more commonly known as photorespiration, since it is characterized by light-dependent oxygen consumption and the release of carbon dioxide.

Experiments related to photosynthesis

Experiment to demonstrate Moll’s half-leaf experiment for showing that CO2, light, chlorophyll and water are necessary requirements for photosynthesis:

  • De-starch a potted plant by putting it in complete darkness for two days.   
  • Fill partly a wide-mouthed bottle with strong solution of caustic potash and fit a split cork on its mouth.  
  • Insert about half of the portion of a leaf of the de-starched plant into the bottle through the split cork.
  • Place the whole apparatus in light after applying grease on the upper portion of split cork, and test the leaf for stach after about 10 hours.

Portions of the leaf inside the bottle as well as in between the split cork show negative test for starch indicating the absence of photosynthesis while the portions outside the split cork show positive test for starch indicating the presence of process of photosynthesis in this region.

Negative starch test by the leaf portion present inside the bottle indicates that process of photosynthesis is absent in this region. This portion of leaf is getting all the essential requirements, i.e., light, chlorophyll and water except the CO2 because the latter is absorbed by the caustic potash. Thus, it can be concluded that CO2 is necessary for this process.

Negative test of starch, which is also shown by the portion of the leaf present in between the split of the split cork, can be explained that it is due to the lack of CO2 and light, thus indicating that both of them are essential requirements.

Positive test of starch shown by the portions of the leaf present outside the bottle indicates that photosynthesis process is continuously going on there because all the essential requirements, i.e., light, chlorophyll, water and CO2 are readily available to this portion.

That the chlorophyll is also an essential requirement for photosynthesis can be shown by testing starch in a variegated leaf. Only green portions of the leaf show positive starch test.

Experiment to demonstrate that oxygen is evolved during the process of photosynthesis:

  • Fill the beaker with the water and take an aquatic plant, such as Hydrilla, in the beaker.  
  • Cut the bases of the plants, tie them with a thread and cover them with an inverted funnel in such a fashion that the cut ends of plants are towards the neck of the funnel.
  • Fill a test tube with the water and invert it on the upper end of the funnel.  
  • Keep the whole apparatus in sunlight and observe for some time.

From the cut ends of the plant some bubbles are coming out continuously and they are collected at the top of the test tube by displacing the water. On testing this gas it is found that it is oxygen.

The liberated gas is oxygen and it is evolved due to the photolysis of water under the process of photosynthesis. The liberated gas comes in the intercellular spaces and ultimately evolves out through the stomata.


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