A Moment of Science

The Mystery of Photorespiration

Learn about the mystery of photorespiration on this Moment of Science.

Today, we’re talking about plants and the mystery of photorespiration, which is actually diametrically opposed to photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants use light to convert carbon dioxide and water into the sugars that fuel the plant. Well, during photorespiration plants use light energy to consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide and water.

Photorespiration undoes part of the work photosynthesis completes. Under present atmospheric conditions, plants lose about twenty-five percent of the energy that they capture through photosynthesis to photorespiration.

One hypothesis is that photorespiration had a role in early evolution, when there was more carbon dioxide in the air. Another explanation is that plants use photorespiration to slow down photosynthesis under certain stressful conditions, like intense light, so that the photosynthetic apparatus doesn’t get damaged.

Given all the mystery surrounding this process, some scientists even began working on genetically engineering crop plants to minimize photorespiration. But one study suggests that photorespiration is actually important to plants after all.

Researchers at UC Davis showed that photorespiration enables a plant to convert inorganic nitrogen into a form of nitrate that’s needed for plant growth. This helps explain why plants have trouble growing in conditions with low oxygen and high carbon dioxide, which inhibit photorespiration.

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