Understanding Pigments


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Chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b are made up of a long hydrocarbon chain attached to a large, complex ring made up of nitrogen and carbon. Magnesium is associated with the center of the ring. Chlorophyll b differs from chlorophyll a in that it has a C H O group instead of a C H 3 group associated with one part of the ring. Beta-carotene is a branched hydrocarbon with a six-membered carbon ring at each end. Each chart shows the absorbance spectra for chlorophyll a, chlorophyll b, and beta-carotene. The three pigments absorb blue-green and orange-red wavelengths of light but have slightly different spectra.
(a) Chlorophyll a, (b) chlorophyll b, and (c) β-carotene are hydrophobic organic pigments found in the thylakoid membrane. Chlorophyll a and b, which are identical except for the part indicated in the red box, are responsible for the green color of leaves. β-carotene is responsible for the orange color in carrots. Each pigment has (d) a unique absorbance spectrum. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

Different kinds of pigments exist, and each absorbs only specific wavelengths (colors) of visible light. Pigments reflect or transmit the wavelengths they cannot absorb, making them appear a mixture of the reflected or transmitted light colors.

Chlorophylls and carotenoids are the two major classes of photosynthetic pigments found in plants and algae; each class has multiple types of pigment molecules. There are five major chlorophylls: abc and d and a related molecule found in prokaryotes called bacteriochlorophyll. Chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b are found in higher plant chloroplasts and will be the focus of the following discussion.

With dozens of different forms, carotenoids are a much larger group of pigments. The carotenoids found in fruit—such as the red of tomato (lycopene), the yellow of corn seeds (zeaxanthin), or the orange of an orange peel (β-carotene)—are used as advertisements to attract seed dispersers. In photosynthesis, carotenoids function as photosynthetic pigments that are very efficient molecules for the disposal of excess energy. When a leaf is exposed to full sun, the light-dependent reactions are required to process an enormous amount of energy; if that energy is not handled properly, it can do significant damage. Therefore, many carotenoids reside in the thylakoid membrane, absorb excess energy, and safely dissipate that energy as heat.

Each type of pigment can be identified by the specific pattern of wavelengths it absorbs from visible light: This is termed the absorption spectrum. The graph above shows the absorption spectra for chlorophyll a, chlorophyll b, and a type of carotenoid pigment called β-carotene (which absorbs blue and green light). Notice how each pigment has a distinct set of peaks and troughs, revealing a highly specific pattern of absorption. Chlorophyll a absorbs wavelengths from either end of the visible spectrum (blue and red), but not green. Because green is reflected or transmitted, chlorophyll appears green. Carotenoids absorb in the short-wavelength blue region, and reflect the longer yellow, red, and orange wavelengths.

Many photosynthetic organisms have a mixture of pigments, and by using these pigments, the organism can absorb energy from a wider range of wavelengths. Not all photosynthetic organisms have full access to sunlight. Some organisms grow underwater where light intensity and quality decrease and change with depth. Other organisms grow in competition for light. Plants on the rainforest floor must be able to absorb any bit of light that comes through, because the taller trees absorb most of the sunlight and scatter the remaining solar radiation.

The photo shows undergrowth in a forest.
Plants that commonly grow in the shade have adapted to low levels of light by changing the relative concentrations of their chlorophyll pigments. (credit: Jason Hollinger)

When studying a photosynthetic organism, scientists can determine the types of pigments present by generating absorption spectra. An instrument called a spectrophotometer can differentiate which wavelengths of light a substance can absorb. Spectrophotometers measure transmitted light and compute from it the absorption. By extracting pigments from leaves and placing these samples into a spectrophotometer, scientists can identify which wavelengths of light an organism can absorb. Additional methods for the identification of plant pigments include various types of chromatography that separate the pigments by their relative affinities to solid and mobile phases.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e