Pathways of Photosynthesis and Cellular Metabolism

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OpenStax Biology 2e

The processes of photosynthesis and cellular metabolism consist of several very complex pathways. It is generally thought that the first cells arose in an aqueous environment—a “soup” of nutrients—possibly on the surface of some porous clays, perhaps in warm marine environments. If these cells reproduced successfully and their numbers climbed steadily, it follows that the cells would begin to deplete the nutrients from the medium in which they lived as they shifted the nutrients into the components of their own bodies. This hypothetical situation would have resulted in natural selection favoring those organisms that could exist by using the nutrients that remained in their environment and by manipulating these nutrients into materials upon which they could survive. Selection would favor those organisms that could extract maximal value from the nutrients to which they had access.

An early form of photosynthesis developed that harnessed the sun’s energy using water as a source of hydrogen atoms, but this pathway did not produce free oxygen (anoxygenic photosynthesis). (Another type of anoxygenic photosynthesis did not produce free oxygen because it did not use water as the source of hydrogen ions; instead, it used materials such as hydrogen sulfide and consequently produced sulfur). It is thought that glycolysis developed at this time and could take advantage of the simple sugars being produced but that these reactions were unable to fully extract the energy stored in the carbohydrates. The development of glycolysis probably predated the evolution of photosynthesis, as it was well suited to extract energy from materials spontaneously accumulating in the “primeval soup.” A later form of photosynthesis used water as a source of electrons and hydrogen and generated free oxygen. Over time, the atmosphere became oxygenated, but not before the oxygen released oxidized metals in the ocean and created a “rust” layer in the sediment, permitting the dating of the rise of the first oxygenic photosynthesizers. Living things adapted to exploit this new atmosphere that allowed aerobic respiration as we know it to evolve. When the full process of oxygenic photosynthesis developed and the atmosphere became oxygenated, cells were finally able to use the oxygen expelled by photosynthesis to extract considerably more energy from the sugar molecules using the citric acid cycle and oxidative phosphorylation.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: