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Photosynthesis occurs inside chloroplasts. Chloroplasts contain chlorophyll, a green pigment found inside the thylakoid membranes. These chlorophyll molecules are arranged in groups called photosystems. There are two types of photosystems, Photosystem II and Photosystem I. When a chlorophyll molecule absorbs light, the energy from this light raises an electron within the chlorophyll molecule to a higher energy state. The chlorophyll molecule is then said to be photoactivated.

Excited electron anywhere within the photosystem are then passed on from one chlorophyll molecule to the next until they reach a special chlorophyll molecule at the reaction centre of the photosystem. This special chlorophyll molecule then passes on the excited electron to a chain of electron carriers.

The light-dependent reactions starts within Photosystem II. When the excited electron reaches the special chlorophyll molecule at the reaction centre of Photosystem II it is passed on to the chain of electron carriers. This chain of electron carriers is found within the thylakoid membrane. As this excited electron passes from one carrier to the next it releases energy. This energy is used to pump protons (hydrogen ions) across the thylakoid membrane and into the space within the thylakoids.

This forms a proton gradient. The protons can travel back across the membrane, down the concentration gradient, however to do so they must pass through ATP synthase. ATP synthase is located in the thylakoid membrane and it uses the energy released from the movement of protons down their concentration gradient to synthesise ATP from ADP and inorganic phosphate. The synthesis of ATP in this manner is called non-cyclic photophosphorylation (uses the energy of excited electrons from photosystem II) .

The electrons from the chain of electron carriers are then accepted by Photosystem I. These electrons replace electrons previously lost from Photosystem I. Photosystem I then absorbs light and becomes photoactivated. The electrons become excited again as they are raised to a higher energy state. These excited electrons then pass along a short chain of electron carriers and are eventually used to reduce NADP+ in the stroma. NADP+ accepts two excited electrons from the chain of carriers and one H+ ion from the stroma to form NADPH.

If the light intensity is not a limiting factor, there will usually be a shortage of NADP+ as NADPH accumulates within the stroma (see light independent reaction). NADP+ is needed for the normal flow of electrons in the thylakoid membranes as it is the final electron acceptor. If NADP+ is not available then the normal flow of electrons is inhibited.

However, there is an alternative pathway for ATP production in this case and it is called cyclic photophosphorylation. It begins with Photosystem I absorbing light and becoming photoactivated. The excited electrons from Photosystem I are then passed on to a chain of electron carriers between Photosystem I and II. These electrons travel along the chain of carriers back to Photosystem I and as they do so they cause the pumping of protons across the thylakoid membrane and therefore create a proton gradient.

As explained previously, the protons move back across the thylakoid membrane through ATP synthase and as they do so, ATP is produced. Therefore, ATP can be produced even when there is a shortage of NADP+. In addition to producing NADPH, the light dependent reactions also produce oxygen as a waste product. When the special chlorophyll molecule at the reaction centre passes on the electrons to the chain of electron carriers, it becomes positively charged. With the aid of an enzyme at the reaction centre, water molecules within the thylakoid space are split.

Oxygen and H+ ions are formed as a result and the electrons from the splitting of these water molecules are given to chlorophyll. The oxygen is then excreted as a waste product. This splitting of water molecules is called photolysis as it only occurs in the presence of light.

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