CHAPTER 6: Energy and Matter

(d). Energy and Life

The capture and use of energy in living systems is dominated by two processes: photosynthesis and respiration. Through these two processes living organisms are able to capture and use all of the energy they require for their activities.



Plants can capture the electromagnetic energy from the Sun by a chemical process called photosynthesis. This chemical reaction can be described by the following simple equation:

6CO2 + 6H2O + light energy >>> C6H12O6 + 6O2

The product of photosynthesis is the carbohydrate glucose and oxygen which is released into the atmosphere. All of the sugar glucose is produced in the specialized photosynthetic cells of plants and some other organisms. Glucose is produced by chemically combining carbon dioxide and water with sunlight. This chemical reaction is catalyzed by chlorophyll acting in concert with other pigment, lipid, sugars, protein, and nucleic acid molecules. Sugars created in photosynthesis can be later converted by the plant to starch for storage, or it can be combined with other sugar molecules to form specialized carbohydrates such as cellulose, or it can be combined with other nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur, to build complex molecules such as proteins and nucleic acids.

Because all the energy fixed by a plant is converted into sugar, it is theoretically possible to determine a plant's energy uptake by measuring the amount of sugar produced. This quantity is called gross primary productivity. Measurements of the buildup of sugar in the plant reflect gross primary productivity less respiration, or net primary productivity.

In general, animals cannot produce their own energy via photosynthesis. Instead, they capture their energy by the consumption and assimilation of the biomass of plants or other animals. Thus, animals get the energy they need for maintenance of their bodies tissues, growth, and reproduction indirectly from photosynthetic organisms.



The oxidation of sugar by organisms is called respiration. This process occurs in both plants and animals. In most organisms, respiration releases the energy required for all metabolic processes. This chemical reaction can be described by the following simple equation:

C6H12O6 + 6O2 >>> 6CO2 + 6H2O + released energy

One of the products of respiration is energy, which is released via the chemical decomposition of glucose. Other products of this chemical reaction are carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O).


Study Guide


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Citation: Pidwirny, M. (2006). "Energy and Life". Fundamentals of Physical Geography, 2nd Edition. Date Viewed.


Created by Dr. Michael Pidwirny & Scott Jones University of British Columbia Okanagan

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05/07/2009 9:59