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Chlorophyll at different scales
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Chlorophyll is responsible for the green color of many plants and algae.
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Seen through a microscope, chlorophyll is concentrated within organisms in structures called chloroplasts shown here grouped inside plant cells.
Why are plants green.svg
Plants are perceived as green because chlorophyll absorbs mainly the blue and red wavelengths but green light, reflected by plant structures like cell walls, is less absorbed. [1]
Chlorophyll d structure.svg
There are several types of chlorophyll, but all share the chlorin magnesium ligand which forms the right side of this diagram.

Chlorophyll is any of several related green pigments found in cyanobacteria and in the chloroplasts of algae and plants. [2] Its name is derived from the Greek words χλωρός, khloros ("pale green") and φύλλον, phyllon ("leaf"). [3] Chlorophyll allow plants to absorb energy from light.


Chlorophylls absorb light most strongly in the blue portion of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as the red portion. [4] Conversely, it is a poor absorber of green and near-green portions of the spectrum. Hence chlorophyll-containing tissues appear green because green light, diffusively reflected by structures like cell walls, is less absorbed. [1] Two types of chlorophyll exist in the photosystems of green plants: chlorophyll a and b. [5]


Chlorophyll was first isolated and named by Joseph Bienaimé Caventou and Pierre Joseph Pelletier in 1817. [6] The presence of magnesium in chlorophyll was discovered in 1906, [7] and was the first detection of that element in living tissue. [8]

After initial work done by German chemist Richard Willstätter spanning from 1905 to 1915, the general structure of chlorophyll a was elucidated by Hans Fischer in 1940. By 1960, when most of the stereochemistry of chlorophyll a was known, Robert Burns Woodward published a total synthesis of the molecule. [8] [9] In 1967, the last remaining stereochemical elucidation was completed by Ian Fleming, [10] and in 1990 Woodward and co-authors published an updated synthesis. [11] Chlorophyll f was announced to be present in cyanobacteria and other oxygenic microorganisms that form stromatolites in 2010; [12] [13] a molecular formula of C55H70O6N4Mg and a structure of (2-formyl)-chlorophyll a were deduced based on NMR, optical and mass spectra. [14]


Absorbance spectra of free chlorophyll a (blue) and b (red) in a solvent. The spectra of chlorophyll molecules are slightly modified in vivo depending on specific pigment-protein interactions.
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Chlorophyll a
Chlorophyll b Chlorophyll ab spectra-en.svg
Absorbance spectra of free chlorophyll a (blue) and b (red) in a solvent. The spectra of chlorophyll molecules are slightly modified in vivo depending on specific pigment-protein interactions.
  Chlorophyll a
  Chlorophyll b

Chlorophyll is vital for photosynthesis, which allows plants to absorb energy from light. [15]

Chlorophyll molecules are arranged in and around photosystems that are embedded in the thylakoid membranes of chloroplasts. [16] In these complexes, chlorophyll serves three functions:

  1. The function of the vast majority of chlorophyll (up to several hundred molecules per photosystem) is to absorb light.
  2. Having done so, these same centers execute their second function: The transfer of that energy by resonance energy transfer to a specific chlorophyll pair in the reaction center of the photosystems.
  3. This specific pair performs the final function of chlorophylls: Charge separation, which produces the unbound protons (H+) and electrons (e) that separately propel biosynthesis.

The two currently accepted photosystem units are photosystem I and photosystem II, which have their own distinct reaction centres, named P700 and P680, respectively. These centres are named after the wavelength (in nanometers) of their red-peak absorption maximum. The identity, function and spectral properties of the types of chlorophyll in each photosystem are distinct and determined by each other and the protein structure surrounding them.

The function of the reaction center of chlorophyll is to absorb light energy and transfer it to other parts of the photosystem. The absorbed energy of the photon is transferred to an electron in a process called charge separation. The removal of the electron from the chlorophyll is an oxidation reaction. The chlorophyll donates the high energy electron to a series of molecular intermediates called an electron transport chain. The charged reaction center of chlorophyll (P680+) is then reduced back to its ground state by accepting an electron stripped from water. The electron that reduces P680+ ultimately comes from the oxidation of water into O2 and H+ through several intermediates. This reaction is how photosynthetic organisms such as plants produce O2 gas, and is the source for practically all the O2 in Earth's atmosphere. Photosystem I typically works in series with Photosystem II; thus the P700+ of Photosystem I is usually reduced as it accepts the electron, via many intermediates in the thylakoid membrane, by electrons coming, ultimately, from Photosystem II. Electron transfer reactions in the thylakoid membranes are complex, however, and the source of electrons used to reduce P700+ can vary.

The electron flow produced by the reaction center chlorophyll pigments is used to pump H+ ions across the thylakoid membrane, setting up a proton-motive force a chemiosmotic potential used mainly in the production of ATP (stored chemical energy) or to reduce NADP+ to NADPH. NADPH is a universal agent used to reduce CO2 into sugars as well as other biosynthetic reactions.

Reaction center chlorophyll–protein complexes are capable of directly absorbing light and performing charge separation events without the assistance of other chlorophyll pigments, but the probability of that happening under a given light intensity is small. Thus, the other chlorophylls in the photosystem and antenna pigment proteins all cooperatively absorb and funnel light energy to the reaction center. Besides chlorophyll a, there are other pigments, called accessory pigments, which occur in these pigment–protein antenna complexes.

Chemical structure

Space-filling model of the chlorophyll a molecule Chlorophyll-a-3D-vdW.png
Space-filling model of the chlorophyll a molecule

Several chlorophylls are known. All are defined as derivatives of the parent chlorin by the presence of a fifth, ketone-containing ring beyond the four pyrrole-like rings. Most chlorophylls are classified as chlorins, which are reduced relatives of porphyrins (found in hemoglobin). They share a common biosynthetic pathway with porphyrins, including the precursor uroporphyrinogen III. Unlike hemes, which contain iron bound to the N4 center, most chlorophylls bind magnesium. The axial ligands attached to the Mg2+ center are often omitted for clarity. Appended to the chlorin ring are various side chains, usually including a long phytyl chain (C20H39O). The most widely distributed form in terrestrial plants is chlorophyll a. The only difference between chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b is that the former has a methyl group where the latter has a formyl group. This difference causes a considerable difference in the absorption spectrum, allowing plants to absorb a greater portion of visible light.

The structures of chlorophylls are summarized below: [17] [18]

Chlorophyll a Chlorophyll b Chlorophyll c1 Chlorophyll c2 Chlorophyll d Chlorophyll f [14]
Molecular formula C55H72O5N4MgC55H70O6N4MgC35H30O5N4MgC35H28O5N4MgC54H70O6N4MgC55H70O6N4Mg
C2 group −CH3 −CH3−CH3−CH3−CH3−CHO
C3 group −CH=CH2 −CH=CH2−CH=CH2−CH=CH2 −CHO −CH=CH2
C7 group−CH3−CHO−CH3−CH3−CH3−CH3
C8 group −CH2CH3 −CH2CH3−CH2CH3−CH=CH2−CH2CH3−CH2CH3
C17 group−CH2CH2COO−Phytyl−CH2CH2COO−Phytyl −CH=CHCOOH −CH=CHCOOH−CH2CH2COO−Phytyl−CH2CH2COO−Phytyl
C17−C18 bondSingle
OccurrenceUniversalMostly plantsVarious algaeVarious algaeCyanobacteriaCyanobacteria

Chlorophyll e is reserved for a pigment that has been extracted from algae in 1966 but not chemically described. Besides the lettered chlophylls, a wide variety of sidechain modifications to the chlorophyll structures are known in the wild. For example, Prochlorococcus , a cyanobacterium, uses 8-vinyl Chl a and b. [19]

Measurement of chlorophyll content

Chlorophyll forms deep green solutions in organic solvents. Chlorophyll Extraktion.jpg
Chlorophyll forms deep green solutions in organic solvents.

Chlorophylls can be extracted from the protein into organic solvents. [20] [21] [22] In this way, the concentration of chlorophyll within a leaf can be estimated. [23] Methods also exist to separate chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b.

In diethyl ether, chlorophyll a has approximate absorbance maxima of 430 nm and 662 nm, while chlorophyll b has approximate maxima of 453 nm and 642 nm. [24] The absorption peaks of chlorophyll a are at 465 nm and 665 nm. Chlorophyll a fluoresces at 673 nm (maximum) and 726 nm. The peak molar absorption coefficient of chlorophyll a exceeds 105 M−1 cm−1, which is among the highest for small-molecule organic compounds. [25] In 90% acetone-water, the peak absorption wavelengths of chlorophyll a are 430 nm and 664 nm; peaks for chlorophyll b are 460 nm and 647 nm; peaks for chlorophyll c1 are 442 nm and 630 nm; peaks for chlorophyll c2 are 444 nm and 630 nm; peaks for chlorophyll d are 401 nm, 455 nm and 696 nm. [26]

Ratio fluorescence emission can be used to measure chlorophyll content. By exciting chlorophyll a fluorescence at a lower wavelength, the ratio of chlorophyll fluorescence emission at 705±10 nm and 735±10 nm can provide a linear relationship of chlorophyll content when compared with chemical testing. The ratio F735/F700 provided a correlation value of r2 0.96 compared with chemical testing in the range from 41 mg m−2 up to 675 mg m−2. Gitelson also developed a formula for direct readout of chlorophyll content in mg m−2. The formula provided a reliable method of measuring chlorophyll content from 41 mg m−2 up to 675 mg m−2 with a correlation r2 value of 0.95. [27]


In some plants, chlorophyll is derived from glutamate and is synthesised along a branched biosynthetic pathway that is shared with heme and siroheme. [28] [29] [30] Chlorophyll synthase [31] is the enzyme that completes the biosynthesis of chlorophyll a: [32] [33]

chlorophyllide a + phytyl diphosphate chlorophyll a + diphosphate

This converion forms an ester of the carboxylic acid group in chlorophyllide a with the 20-carbon diterpene alcohol phytol. Chlorophyll b is made by the same enzyme acting on chlorophyllide b. The same is known for chlorophyll d and f, both made from corresponding chlorophyllides ultimately made from chlorophyllide a. [34]

In Angiosperm plants, the later steps in the biosynthetic pathway are light-dependent. Such plants are pale (etiolated) if grown in darkness. Non-vascular plants and green algae have an additional light-independent enzyme and grow green even in darkness. [35]

Chlorophyll is bound to proteins. Protochlorophyllide, one of the biosynthetic intermediates, occurs mostly in the free form and, under light conditions, acts as a photosensitizer, forming free radicals, which can be toxic to the plant. Hence, plants regulate the amount of this chlorophyll precursor. In angiosperms, this regulation is achieved at the step of aminolevulinic acid (ALA), one of the intermediate compounds in the biosynthesis pathway. Plants that are fed by ALA accumulate high and toxic levels of protochlorophyllide; so do the mutants with a damaged regulatory system. [36]

Senescence and the chlorophyll cycle

The process of plant senescence involves the degradation of chlorophyll: for example the enzyme chlorophyllase (EC hydrolyses the phytyl sidechain to reverse the reaction in which chlorophylls are biosynthesised from chlorophyllide a or b. Since chlorophyllide a can be converted to chlorophyllide b and the latter can be re-esterified to chlorophyll b, these processes allow cycling between chlorophylls a and b. Moreover, chlorophyll b can be directly reduced (via 71-hydroxychlorophyll a) back to chlorophyll a, completing the cycle. [37] [38] In later stages of senescence, chlorophyllides are converted to a group of colourless tetrapyrroles known as nonfluorescent chlorophyll catabolites (NCC's) with the general structure:


These compounds have also been identified in ripening fruits and they give characteristic autumn colours to deciduous plants. [38] [39]


The chlorophyll maps show milligrams of chlorophyll per cubic meter of seawater each month. Places where chlorophyll amounts were very low, indicating very low numbers of phytoplankton, are blue. Places where chlorophyll concentrations were high, meaning many phytoplankton were growing, are yellow. The observations come from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite. Land is dark gray, and places where MODIS could not collect data because of sea ice, polar darkness, or clouds are light gray. The highest chlorophyll concentrations, where tiny surface-dwelling ocean plants are thriving, are in cold polar waters or in places where ocean currents bring cold water to the surface, such as around the equator and along the shores of continents. It is not the cold water itself that stimulates the phytoplankton. Instead, the cool temperatures are often a sign that the water has welled up to the surface from deeper in the ocean, carrying nutrients that have built up over time. In polar waters, nutrients accumulate in surface waters during the dark winter months when plants cannot grow. When sunlight returns in the spring and summer, the plants flourish in high concentrations. [40]

Culinary use

Synthetic chlorophyll is registered as a food additive colorant, and its E number is E140. Chefs use chlorophyll to color a variety of foods and beverages green, such as pasta and spirits. Absinthe gains its green color naturally from the chlorophyll introduced through the large variety of herbs used in its production. [41] Chlorophyll is not soluble in water, and it is first mixed with a small quantity of vegetable oil to obtain the desired solution.[ citation needed ]

Biological use

A 2002 study found that "leaves exposed to strong light contained degraded major antenna proteins, unlike those kept in the dark, which is consistent with studies on the illumination of isolated proteins". This appeared to the authors as support for the hypothesis that "active oxygen species play a role in vivo" in the short-term behaviour of plants. [42]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chloroplast</span> Plant organelle that conducts photosynthesis

A chloroplast is a type of membrane-bound organelle known as a plastid that conducts photosynthesis mostly in plant and algal cells. The photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll captures the energy from sunlight, converts it, and stores it in the energy-storage molecules ATP and NADPH while freeing oxygen from water in the cells. The ATP and NADPH is then used to make organic molecules from carbon dioxide in a process known as the Calvin cycle. Chloroplasts carry out a number of other functions, including fatty acid synthesis, amino acid synthesis, and the immune response in plants. The number of chloroplasts per cell varies from one, in unicellular algae, up to 100 in plants like Arabidopsis and wheat.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Photosynthesis</span> Biological process to convert light into chemical energy

Photosynthesis is a biological process used by many organisms to convert light energy into chemical energy, which is stored in organic compounds that can later be metabolized through cellular respiration to fuel the organism's activities. The term usually refers to oxygenic photosynthesis, where oxygen is produced as a byproduct and some of the chemical energy produced is stored in carbohydrate molecules such as sugars, starch, glycogen, and cellulose, which are synthesized from an endergonic reaction of carbon dioxide with water. Organisms that perform photosynthesis are called photoautotrophs; most plants, algae, and cyanobacteria are photoautotrophs. Photosynthesis is largely responsible for producing and maintaining the oxygen content of the Earth's atmosphere, and it supplies most of the biological energy necessary for complex life on Earth.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thylakoid</span> Membrane enclosed compartments in chloroplasts and cyanobacteria

Thylakoids are membrane-bound compartments inside chloroplasts and cyanobacteria. They are the site of the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis. Thylakoids consist of a thylakoid membrane surrounding a thylakoid lumen. Chloroplast thylakoids frequently form stacks of disks referred to as grana. Grana are connected by intergranal or stromal thylakoids, which join granum stacks together as a single functional compartment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bacteriochlorophyll</span> Chemical compound

Bacteriochlorophylls (BChl) are photosynthetic pigments that occur in various phototrophic bacteria. They were discovered by C. B. van Niel in 1932. They are related to chlorophylls, which are the primary pigments in plants, algae, and cyanobacteria. Organisms that contain bacteriochlorophyll conduct photosynthesis to sustain their energy requirements, but the process is anoxygenic and does not produce oxygen as a byproduct. They use wavelengths of light not absorbed by plants or cyanobacteria. Replacement of Mg2+ with protons gives bacteriophaeophytin (BPh), the phaeophytin form.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Photosystem</span> Structural units of protein involved in photosynthesis

Photosystems are functional and structural units of protein complexes involved in photosynthesis. Together they carry out the primary photochemistry of photosynthesis: the absorption of light and the transfer of energy and electrons. Photosystems are found in the thylakoid membranes of plants, algae, and cyanobacteria. These membranes are located inside the chloroplasts of plants and algae, and in the cytoplasmic membrane of photosynthetic bacteria. There are two kinds of photosystems: PSI and PSII.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Photosystem I</span> Second protein complex in photosynthetic light reactions

Photosystem I is one of two photosystems in the photosynthetic light reactions of algae, plants, and cyanobacteria. Photosystem I is an integral membrane protein complex that uses light energy to catalyze the transfer of electrons across the thylakoid membrane from plastocyanin to ferredoxin. Ultimately, the electrons that are transferred by Photosystem I are used to produce the moderate-energy hydrogen carrier NADPH. The photon energy absorbed by Photosystem I also produces a proton-motive force that is used to generate ATP. PSI is composed of more than 110 cofactors, significantly more than Photosystem II.

Chlorophyll <i>a</i> Chemical compound

Chlorophyll a is a specific form of chlorophyll used in oxygenic photosynthesis. It absorbs most energy from wavelengths of violet-blue and orange-red light, and it is a poor absorber of green and near-green portions of the spectrum. Chlorophyll does not reflect light but chlorophyll-containing tissues appear green because green light is diffusively reflected by structures like cell walls. This photosynthetic pigment is essential for photosynthesis in eukaryotes, cyanobacteria and prochlorophytes because of its role as primary electron donor in the electron transport chain. Chlorophyll a also transfers resonance energy in the antenna complex, ending in the reaction center where specific chlorophylls P680 and P700 are located.

Accessory pigments are light-absorbing compounds, found in photosynthetic organisms, that work in conjunction with chlorophyll a. They include other forms of this pigment, such as chlorophyll b in green algal and vascular ("higher") plant antennae, while other algae may contain chlorophyll c or d. In addition, there are many non-chlorophyll accessory pigments, such as carotenoids or phycobiliproteins, which also absorb light and transfer that light energy to photosystem chlorophyll. Some of these accessory pigments, in particular the carotenoids, also serve to absorb and dissipate excess light energy, or work as antioxidants. The large, physically associated group of chlorophylls and other accessory pigments is sometimes referred to as a pigment bed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Phycobilisome</span> Light-energy harvesting structure in cyanobacteria and red algae

Phycobilisomes are light harvesting antennae of photosystem II in cyanobacteria, red algae and glaucophytes. It was lost in the plastids of green algae / plants (chloroplasts).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Light-harvesting complexes of green plants</span> Component of photosynthesis

The light-harvesting complex is an array of protein and chlorophyll molecules embedded in the thylakoid membrane of plants and cyanobacteria, which transfer light energy to one chlorophyll a molecule at the reaction center of a photosystem.

Chlorophyll <i>b</i> Chemical compound

Chlorophyll b is a form of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll b helps in photosynthesis by absorbing light energy. It is more soluble than chlorophyll a in polar solvents because of its carbonyl group. Its color is green, and it primarily absorbs blue light.

Photodissociation, photolysis, photodecomposition, or photofragmentation is a chemical reaction in which molecules of a chemical compound are broken down by photons. It is defined as the interaction of one or more photons with one target molecule.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Photosynthetic reaction centre</span> Molecular unit responsible for absorbing light in photosynthesis

A photosynthetic reaction center is a complex of several proteins, pigments, and other co-factors that together execute the primary energy conversion reactions of photosynthesis. Molecular excitations, either originating directly from sunlight or transferred as excitation energy via light-harvesting antenna systems, give rise to electron transfer reactions along the path of a series of protein-bound co-factors. These co-factors are light-absorbing molecules (also named chromophores or pigments) such as chlorophyll and pheophytin, as well as quinones. The energy of the photon is used to excite an electron of a pigment. The free energy created is then used, via a chain of nearby electron acceptors, for a transfer of hydrogen atoms (as protons and electrons) from H2O or hydrogen sulfide towards carbon dioxide, eventually producing glucose. These electron transfer steps ultimately result in the conversion of the energy of photons to chemical energy.

A light-harvesting complex consists of a number of chromophores which are complex subunit proteins that may be part of a larger super complex of a photosystem, the functional unit in photosynthesis. It is used by plants and photosynthetic bacteria to collect more of the incoming light than would be captured by the photosynthetic reaction center alone. The light which is captured by the chromophores is capable of exciting molecules from their ground state to a higher energy state, known as the excited state. This excited state does not last very long and is known to be short-lived.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Photoinhibition</span>

Photoinhibition is light-induced reduction in the photosynthetic capacity of a plant, alga, or cyanobacterium. Photosystem II (PSII) is more sensitive to light than the rest of the photosynthetic machinery, and most researchers define the term as light-induced damage to PSII. In living organisms, photoinhibited PSII centres are continuously repaired via degradation and synthesis of the D1 protein of the photosynthetic reaction center of PSII. Photoinhibition is also used in a wider sense, as dynamic photoinhibition, to describe all reactions that decrease the efficiency of photosynthesis when plants are exposed to light.

Non-photochemical quenching (NPQ) is a mechanism employed by plants and algae to protect themselves from the adverse effects of high light intensity. It involves the quenching of singlet excited state chlorophylls (Chl) via enhanced internal conversion to the ground state, thus harmlessly dissipating excess excitation energy as heat through molecular vibrations. NPQ occurs in almost all photosynthetic eukaryotes, and helps to regulate and protect photosynthesis in environments where light energy absorption exceeds the capacity for light utilization in photosynthesis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Light-dependent reactions</span> Photosynthetic reactions

Light-dependent reactions refers to certain photochemical reactions that are involved in photosynthesis, the main process by which plants acquire energy. There are two light dependent reactions, the first occurs at photosystem II (PSII) and the second occurs at photosystem I (PSI).

Chlorophyll c refers to forms of chlorophyll found in certain marine algae, including the photosynthetic Chromista and dinoflagellates. These pigments are characterized by their unusual chemical structure, with a porphyrin as opposed to the chlorin as the core; they also do not have an isoprenoid tail. Both these features stand out from the other chlorophylls commonly found in algae and plants.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chlorophyll fluorescence</span> Light re-emitted by chlorophyll molecules during return from excited to non-excited states

Chlorophyll fluorescence is light re-emitted by chlorophyll molecules during return from excited to non-excited states. It is used as an indicator of photosynthetic energy conversion in plants, algae and bacteria. Excited chlorophyll dissipates the absorbed light energy by driving photosynthesis, as heat in non-photochemical quenching or by emission as fluorescence radiation. As these processes are complementary processes, the analysis of chlorophyll fluorescence is an important tool in plant research with a wide spectrum of applications.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chlorophyllide</span> Chemical compound

Chlorophyllide a and Chlorophyllide b are the biosynthetic precursors of chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b respectively. Their propionic acid groups are converted to phytyl esters by the enzyme chlorophyll synthase in the final step of the pathway. Thus the main interest in these chemical compounds has been in the study of chlorophyll biosynthesis in plants, algae and cyanobacteria. Chlorophyllide a is also an intermediate in the biosynthesis of bacteriochlorophylls.


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