This article describes the role of electrochemical gradients in photosynthesis, including electron transport and carbon fixation, as well as the impact of light quality on electron transport and ATP generation.

Electrochemical Gradients, Plant Metabolism, and Light Quality
Electrochemical Gradients, Plant Metabolism, and Light Quality

Jeff Bates | UbiGro

In the realm of greenhouse cultivation, understanding the intricate processes governing plant metabolism, including the creation of electrochemical gradients and ATP generation, is not just a matter of scientific curiosity; it is a pivotal factor that can significantly impact crop yield and quality. If you ask a grower to describe photosynthesis, they might tell you it’s how plants use sunlight to grow. But how the sunlight energy is transformed into chemical energy through the establishment of electrochemical gradients, ATP generation, and plant metabolism is a mechanism that fewer can explain. This article describes the role of electrochemical gradients in photosynthesis, including electron transport and carbon fixation, as well as the impact of light quality on electron transport and ATP generation.

Beyond the familiar concept of photosynthesis lies a complex interplay of electrochemical gradients (EG), specifically proton motive force, and ATP generation that orchestrates crucial biochemical reactions within plant cells, thus highlighting the vital connection between light quality, electrochemical gradients, plant metabolism, and ATP generation.

This article delves into the fascinating world of electrochemical gradients, unraveling their role in photosynthetic electron transport chains (PETC), the generation of ATP through proton motive force, and their influence on the activation of enzymes crucial for carbon fixation. As greenhouse growers aim to optimize conditions for plant growth, a comprehensive understanding of these processes becomes paramount.

Furthermore, this article explores the correlation between light quality and electron transport rate,
shedding light on how manipulating the spectral composition of light can be a strategic tool for
enhancing photosynthetic efficiency. By examining the impact of light quality on electron transport chains, this discussion equips greenhouse cultivators with insights into maximizing crop productivity through informed adjustments in lighting strategies.

Electrochemical Gradients, Plant Metabolism, and Light Quality

Figure 1. An electrochemical gradient generated by hydrogen cations.

Electrochemical Gradients

An electrochemical gradient (EG) occurs when a chemical species, usually an ion, exists on both sides of a membrane (a permeable boundary in an organism) in different concentrations and charges (Figure 1).

If possible, ions will move from an area of higher concentration to lower concentration through passive diffusion. They also carry an electric charge, so their movement across membranes creates a transmembrane electrical potential. This results in a gradient that is not just chemical, but electrochemical. Simply put, when an EG exists, the exterior and interior of a plant cell hold different electrical potentials, forming a transmembrane potential, and changing the energy required to move across the membrane.


Electrochemical Gradients, Plant Metabolism, and Light Quality

Figure 2. Inside of chloroplast inner membrane is the stroma, which contains lumen inside of thylakoids.

Photosynthetic Electron Transport Chains

Chlorophyll absorbs energy from sunlight and is involved in forming energy storage molecules (ATP and NADPH) in the light reactions of photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is present in thylakoid membranes which are compartments inside chloroplasts (Figure 2). The EG that drives photosynthesis spans across these thylakoid membranes and is modulated by photosynthetic electron transport chains (PETCs). 

Electron transport chains (ETCs) consist of membrane-embedded proteins that easily accept or donate electrons. In photosystem II, energy received as light is transferred to a water molecule: the water molecule splits, yielding hydrogen ions, molecular oxygen, and a free electron to travel on the PETCs. The electron transport rate on the PETC is affected by light quality, described in the final section of this article.

As the PETC moves electrons in a specific direction across the thylakoid membrane, the electrical charges of the thylakoid interior (lumen) and exterior (stroma) shift. To balance this shift, protons (in the form of hydrogen ions) are pumped from the stroma into the lumen by the PETC molecules. In this manner, the PETC generates and maintains an electrically-charged gradient across the thylakoid membrane, balanced by hydrogen protons and free electrons (Figure 3).

Electrochemical Gradients, Plant Metabolism, and Light Quality

Figure 3. Schematic diagram of electron/proton movement by ETC.

Proton Motive Force

When a plant receives light, electron/proton movement by the PETC results in a greater proton concentration in the lumen than in the stroma, generating an EG. Proton motive force (PMF) is another name for EGs of protons. This PMF allows for another protein embedded in the thylakoid membrane, adenosine triphosphate synthase (ATP, ATPase), to produce chemical energy in the form of ATP. As the ETC shuttles more hydrogen protons into the lumen, the protons naturally want to diffuse back towards their lower concentration.

As they do, their movement physically rotates ATPase, converting potential energy into kinetic energy, and combining adenosine diphosphate with inorganic phosphorus, yielding ATP (Figure 4). ATP is used for immediate energy needs or is turned into glucose for longer term storage.

Electrochemical Gradients, Plant Metabolism, and Light Quality

Figure 4. ATPase exploits the transmembrane movement of protons to produce ATP.

This proton movement not only facilitates ATP production, but also changes pH. When the plant receives light, the PETC moves protons into the lumen, making the lumen environment more acidic. To mitigate the electric potential across the thylakoid membrane, magnesium cations diffuse across the membrane from the lumen into the stroma. 

This affects the activity of ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (RuBisCO), an enzyme in the stroma that is responsible for carbon fixation. RuBisCO exists in a deactivated and activated state; when activated, it acts as a catalyst. The increase in pH and magnesium, resulting from hydrogen efflux and magnesium influx, creates a more preferable environment for RuBisCO activation. In this manner, the PETC not only regulates ATP synthesis, but also plays a role in carbon fixation.


Respiratory ETCs

Photosynthesis is not the only metabolic process driven by proton motive force. Proton gradients are also found in mitochondria, which break down glucose in the process of respiration. In contrast with the PETC, the respiratory electron transport chain (RETC) and ATPase are embedded in the inner mitochondrial membrane. 

The RETC does not receive free electrons from hydrolysis, but rather from nicotinamide/ flavin adenine dinucleotides (NADH/FADH2) (Figure 5). The RETC shuttles protons from the mitochondrial matrix into the intermembrane space to compensate for electron movement. The result is carbohydrates produced through photosynthesis can later be broken down for energy as needed by the plant.

Electrochemical Gradients, Plant Metabolism, and Light Quality

Figure 5. Schematic diagram of mitochondrial respiratory ETC.

Light Quality and Electron Transport Rate

Light quality refers to spectral wavelength composition: for example, an LED fixture might emit a light quality of 80% red (600-700 nm), 20% blue (400-500 nm). Plants demonstrate growth responses to light qualities in the range of plant biologically active radiation (BAR, 280-750 nm). BAR encompasses radiation that is ultraviolet (UV, 280-400 nm), photosynthetically active (PAR, 400-700 nm), and far-red (FR, 700-750 nm). PAR contributes directly to photosynthesis and is divided into wavelength ranges corresponding to visible colors: blue, green, and red (400-500, 500-600, 600-700 nm, respectively).

These three colors exhibit different quantum yields (QY), which is the amount of CO2 or O2 evolved per unit of light received. Red light provides the greatest quantum yield of all PAR colors and is considered the most photosynthetically efficient. 

Red light is immediately directed to chloroplasts for photosynthetic processing; meanwhile, higher-energy PAR wavelengths (i.e., blue) are processed by accessory pigments (including carotenoids) to lose some energy before that energy is transferred to chloroplasts. High QY of red light has led to the development of photoconversion technologies that convert higher-energy BAR to red wavelengths (i.e., UV and blue to red). As a result, plant growth rates and yields increase. 

Light quality changes QY by affecting photochemical efficiency (PE) and electron transport rate (ETR) on the PETC, amongst other variables. PE describes the amount of PAR that is photosynthesized versus dissipated as heat, and is optimized when photosystems II and I (PSII, PSI) excitation states are balanced. However, the photosystems have different peak absorption wavelengths, meaning the incident light quality impacts the balance between their excitation state.

Shorter PAR wavelengths (400-670 nm) typically excite PSII, meanwhile FR light (700-800 nm) preferentially excites PSI. When functioning of both photosystems is balanced, ETR is optimized, leading to increased photochemical efficiency (Figure 6). In this manner, studying light quality effects on plant growth should not only consider individual wavelength intensities separately, but also ratios of wavelengths (e.g. R:FR).

Electrochemical Gradients, Plant Metabolism, and Light Quality

Figure 6. Electrons move from PSII to PSI on the electron transport

Electron transport chains not only move electrons, but also hydrogen protons that establish an electrochemical gradient necessary for photosynthesis and respiration. The proton electrochemical gradient generates proton motive force and regulates pH, facilitating ATP generation and RuBisCO activation. Light quality impacts the rate of electron transport on ETCs by affecting PSII and PSI activity.

In conclusion, this exploration into the intricate relationship between electrochemical gradients, plant metabolism, and light quality provides greenhouse growers with a profound understanding of the underlying mechanisms that govern photosynthesis. The electrochemical gradients, specifically proton motive force, play a central role in orchestrating vital biochemical reactions within plant cells that influence ATP generation and carbon fixation in plant metabolism. The article sheds light on the connection between light quality, electrochemical gradients, and electron transport rate, revealing how manipulating the spectral composition of light can be a strategic tool for optimizing photosynthetic efficiency in terms of ATP generation. As growers strive to enhance crop yield and quality in greenhouse cultivation, the insights presented here offer valuable knowledge for making informed decisions on adjusting lighting strategies to support plant metabolism.

Technologies that manipulate light quality must therefore consider light wavelength ratios that equally excite both photosystems and increase net photosynthesis. By recognizing the significance of electrochemical gradients and their interaction with light quality and plant metabolism, greenhouse cultivators are empowered to maximize the productivity of their crops through thoughtful and targeted environmental management, focusing on ATP generation within the context of plant metabolism.

Jeff Bates is Plant Biologist at UbiQD, Inc. With professional experience in both crop research and production, he has grown edible, ornamental, and medicinal crops using soilless cultivation methods in various controlled environment settings. These experiences have led him to believe that advancing controlled environment technologies is critical to supporting future generations.


Duysens, L. N. M., & Amesz, J. (1962). Function and identification of two photochemical systems in photosynthesis. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, 64(2), 243-260.

Evans, J. R. (1987). The dependence of quantum yield on wavelength and growth irradiance. Functional Plant Biology, 14(1), 69-79.

Evans, J. R., Morgan, P. B., & von Caemmerer, S. (2017). Light quality affects chloroplast electron transport rates estimated from Chl fluorescence measurements. Plant and Cell Physiology, 58(10), 1652-1660.

Hogewoning, S. W., Wientjes, E., Douwstra, P., Trouwborst, G., Van Ieperen, W., Croce, R., & Harbinson, J. (2012). Photosynthetic quantum yield dynamics: from photosystems to leaves. The plant cell, 24(5), 1921-1935.

McCree, K. J. (1971). The action spectrum, absorptance and quantum yield of photosynthesis in crop plants. Agricultural Meteorology, 9, 191-216.

Myers, J. (1971). Enhancement studies in photosynthesis. Annual Review of Plant Physiology, 22(1), 289-312.

Su, J. H., & Shen, Y. K. (2005). Influence of State-2 transition on the proton motive force across the thylakoid membrane in spinach chloroplasts. Photosynthesis research, 85, 235-245.

Zhen, S., & van Iersel, M. W. (2017). Far-red light is needed for efficient photochemistry and photosynthesis. Journal of plant physiology, 209, 115-122.


The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AgriTechTomorrow

Comments (0)

This post does not have any comments. Be the first to leave a comment below.

Post A Comment

You must be logged in before you can post a comment. Login now.

Featured Product

Get enhanced vision-powered systems for Auto Farming!

Get enhanced vision-powered systems for Auto Farming!

e-con Systems leads the way in Agriculture Automation, leveraging over 20 years of expertise in OEM camera design, development, and manufacturing. e-con's diverse camera range, featuring advanced capabilities and partnerships with leading sensor technology providers like Sony, onsemi, and OmniVision, is tailored for various smart farming applications such as weed detection, bug identification, crop health monitoring, and harvesting automation. The recent addition of e-con's 20MP camera captures tiny details, enhancing efficiency in crop monitoring and automated machinery guidance. e-con cameras offer versatile interfaces, exceptional low-light performance, expert ISP tuning, multi-camera support, HDR, long-distance capabilities, and customizable features, empowering agriculture automation. e-con specializes in providing AI-ready multi-camera solutions for real-time decision-making. e-con Systems has empowered numerous clients in the smart farming industry to develop and deploy futuristic agricultural systems, including agricultural robots, autonomous tractors, and drones. As NVIDIA's Elite partner, e-con Systems revolutionizes agricultural applications with deep learning algorithms for NVIDIA Jetson kits, expediting time-to-market for customers.