Photosynthesis and vegetal life

In this article we will talk about photosynthesis and about the first kinds of vegetal life. In the current systematic, the term plant fits primarily to terrestrial plants, while the term vegetal is an old term of Aristotelian connotation that refers to organisms with photosynthetic functions. But, as with everything, there are exceptions.

The term plant has existed for many years. But, previously, Aristotle was who classified the living organisms into three mainly groups:

  • Vegetals (vegetative soul): can perform nutrition and reproduction.
  • Animals (sensitive soul): nutrition, reproduction, perception, movement and desire.
  • Humans: can do all these things and also have the ability to reason.
Aristotle (Public domain)

This simplistic way of perceiving the living world has lasted for a long time, but has varied due to different studies by several authors like Linnaeus or Whittaker, among others.

A very current classification was proposed in 2012, The Revised Classification of Eukaryotes. J. Eukariot. Microbiol. 59 (5): 429-493; this one reveals a true tree of life.

image description
Sina ;. Adl, et al. (2012) The revised classification of Eukaryotes.  J Eukaryot Microbiol.; 59 (5): 429-493


Photosynthesis is a metabolic process that allows to use light energy to transform simple inorganic compounds into organic complexes. To do this, they need a number of photosynthetic pigments that capture these light rays and that through a series of chemical reactions allow to perform internal processes that give rise to organic compounds.

This nutritious option has been developed by many organisms in multiple groups and branches of the tree of life of eukaryotes. And among them appears  the Archaeplastida, the lineage of organisms that has led to land plants.

Terrestrial plants (Embryophyta) are easily definable, but what about the algae? Usually, they are defined as eukaryotic organisms living primarily in the aquatic environment and with a relatively simple organization, but this is not always true. For this reason, all Archaeplastida groups falling outside the concept of land plants (a small group within Archaeplastida) are called “algae“.

There are also photosynthetic prokaryotes into Eubacteria domain, and it is in these where photosynthesis is highly variable. While in eukaryotes is unique, oxygenic photosynthesis.

The Eubacteria domain is very broad, and among its branches there are up to 5 large groups of photosynthetic organisms: Chloroflexi, Firmicutes, Chlorobi, Proteobacteria and Cyanobacteria. The latter are the only eubacterial performing an oxygenic photosynthesis; with release of oxygen from water molecules and using hydrogen from water as electron donor. The rest performs an anoxygenic photosynthesis: the electron donor is sulfur or hydrogen sulfide and, during this process, oxigen is never released, since water rarely intervenes; which is why they are known as purple sulfur bacteria.

Photosynthesis is probably older than life itself. Oxygenic photosynthesis, which is tightly related to this group of bacteria, the cyanobacteria, probably occurs later. But it was crucial for the development of life on our planet, since transformed the atmosphere in a more oxygenated one and, due to this, life on Earth had become more diverse and has evolved.

Amazon, the lungs of the Earh (Author: Christian Cruzado; Flickr)


Cyanobacteria share pigments with terrestrial plants and other photosynthetic eukaryotes. These pigments are primarily chlorophylls a and b (the universal ones); c and d are only present in some groups. There are two more pigments that are univeral: carotenes, these ones act as antennas that transfer the captured energy to chlorophylls and also protect the reaction center against autoxidation, and phycobiliproteins (phycocyanin, phycoerythrin, etc.), which appear in both cyanobacteria and other eukaryotic groups photosynthetic and are responsible for capturing light energy.

But, why exist this variability of accessory pigments? because each pigment have a different absorption spectrum, and the fact to present different molecules allows to collect much better the wavelenght of sunlight; i.e., energy capture is much more efficient.

On the other hand, the anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria don’t present chlorophylls and, instead, have specific molecules of the prokaryotes, the bacteriochlorophylls.

Absorption spectrum of different pigments (Reference: York University)

Where are pigments located?

In the organisms with oxygenic photosynthesis, that is, in cyanobacteria and photosynthetic eukaryotes, pigments are located into complex structures. In cyanobacteria, there are various concentric flattened sacs called thylakoids in the peripheral cytoplasm, which are only surrounded by a membrane. And it is in the lumen of the thylakoid where pigments are located. In eukaryotes, however, we found chloroplasts, which are intracellular organelles full of thylakoids with at least two membranes and they are particular of photosynthetic eukaryotes. In these chloroplasts is where photosynthesis takes place. Both groups, therefore, perform oxygenic photosynthesis within the thylakoids; the difference is that in eukaryotes, the thylakoids are located into the chloroplasts.

Plant cells where we can see chloroplasts (Author: Kristian Peters – Fabelfroh)

On the other hand, in organisms with anoxygenic photosynthesis there are different options. The purple bacteria contain pigments in chromatophores, a kind of vesicles in the center or periphery of the cell. In contrast, the green bacteria (Chlorobi and Chloroflexi) present several flattened vesicles at the periphery of the cell, on the plasma membrane, where bacteriochlorophyll are located. In Heliobacterium, the pigment is attached to the inner surface of the plasma membrane. They are generally not complex structures, and often this structures have simple membranes.


The fossil evidence of the earliest photosynthetic organisms are the stromatolites (3.2 Ga ago). They are structures formed by overlapping thin layers of organisms together with their own calcium carbonate deposits. These occurs in shallow waters, in warm and well-lit seas. Although many seem straight columns, deviations are observed because they try to be oriented towards the sunlight to perform photosynthesis. In the past they had a crucial importance in building reefs-like formations and they also participated into the atmospheric composition changes. Currently, there are some which are still alive.

Stromatolites (Author:Alessandro, Flickr)


  • Notes from the Environmental Biology degree (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and the Master’s degree in Biodiversity (Universitat de Barcelona).
  • Font Quer, P. (1953): Diccionario de Botánica. Editorial Labor, Barcelona.
  • Izco, J., Barreno, E., Brugués, M., Costa, M., Devesa, J. A., Fernández, F., Gallardo, T., Llimona, X., Parada, C., Talavera, S. & Valdés, B. (2004) Botánica 2.ªEdición. McGraw-Hill, pp. 906.
  • Willis, K.J. & McElwain, J.C. (2014) The Evolution of Plants (second edition). Oxford University Press, 424 pp.


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