The Photosynthetic Structures in Eukaryotes and Prokaryotes


(a) Photosynthesis in eukaryotes takes place in chloroplasts, which contain thylakoids stacked into grana. (b) A photosynthetic prokaryote has infolded regions of the plasma membrane that function like thylakoids. (credit: scale bar data from Matt Russell.)

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In all phototrophic eukaryotes, photosynthesis takes place inside a chloroplast, an organelle that arose in eukaryotes by endosymbiosis of a photosynthetic bacterium. These chloroplasts are enclosed by a double membrane with inner and outer layers. Within the chloroplast is a third membrane that forms stacked, disc-shaped photosynthetic structures called thylakoids. A stack of thylakoids is called a granum, and the space surrounding the granum within the chloroplast is called stroma.

Photosynthetic membranes in prokaryotes, by contrast, are not organized into distinct membrane-enclosed organelles; rather, they are infolded regions of the plasma membrane. In cyanobacteria, for example, these infolded regions are also referred to as thylakoids. In either case, embedded within the thylakoid membranes or other photosynthetic bacterial membranes are photosynthetic pigment molecules organized into one or more photosystems, where light energy is actually converted into chemical energy.

Photosynthetic pigments within the photosynthetic membranes are organized into photosystems, each of which is composed of a light-harvesting (antennae) complex and a reaction center. The light-harvesting complex consists of multiple proteins and associated pigments that each may absorb light energy and, thus, become excited. This energy is transferred from one pigment molecule to another until eventually (after about a millionth of a second) it is delivered to the reaction center. Up to this point, only energy—not electrons—has been transferred between molecules. The reaction center contains a pigment molecule that can undergo oxidation upon excitation, actually giving up an electron. It is at this step in photosynthesis that light energy is converted into an excited electron.

Different kinds of light-harvesting pigments absorb unique patterns of wavelengths (colors) of visible light. Pigments reflect or transmit the wavelengths they cannot absorb, making them appear the corresponding color. Examples of photosynthetic pigments (molecules used to absorb solar energy) are bacteriochlorophylls (green, purple, or red), carotenoids (orange, red, or yellow), chlorophylls (green), phycocyanins (blue), and phycoerythrins (red). By having mixtures of pigments, an organism can absorb energy from more wavelengths. Because photosynthetic bacteria commonly grow in competition for sunlight, each type of photosynthetic bacteria is optimized for harvesting the wavelengths of light to which it is commonly exposed, leading to stratification of microbial communities in aquatic and soil ecosystems by light quality and penetration.

Once the light harvesting complex transfers the energy to the reaction center, the reaction center delivers its high-energy electrons, one by one, to an electron carrier in an electron transport system, and electron transfer through the ETS is initiated. The ETS is similar to that used in cellular respiration and is embedded within the photosynthetic membrane. Ultimately, the electron is used to produce NADH or NADPH. The electrochemical gradient that forms across the photosynthetic membrane is used to generate ATP by chemiosmosis through the process of photophosphorylation, another example of oxidative phosphorylation.

This figure summarizes how a photosystem works. Light harvesting (LH) pigments absorb light energy, converting it to chemical energy. The energy is passed from one LH pigment to another until it reaches a reaction center (RC) pigment, exciting an electron. This high-energy electron is lost from the RC pigment and passed through an electron transport system (ETS), ultimately producing NADH or NADPH and ATP. A reduced molecule (H2A) donates an electron, replacing electrons to the electron-deficient RC pigment.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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