The Extended Beauty Of Photosynthesis : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Inside every plant there is an insanely complex molecular engine that turns sunlight into food — and across billions of years, photosynthesis shaped the history of the entire planet, says Adam Frank.

The Extended Beauty Of Photosynthesis

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Adam Frank usually has his head in the sky. He's an astrophysicist. It's an occupational hazard. Right now, though, he is dazzled by the universe of green right here on Earth.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Now that we're well past the start of spring, you're probably inured already to all the green - well, not me, Pal. See; this Spring, I've been digging in on photosynthesis for some research I'm doing. And I got to tell you. It's blowing my mind.

Now, for those of you who've been out of a bio class for a while, let's remember that photosynthesis is the molecular-scale shenanigans plant use to create food from sunlight. See; when life first formed on Earth about 4 billion years or so ago, the only way single-cell critters could get energy was from chemistry. They had to find high-energy chemicals like methane and convert it into low-energy chemicals like carbon dioxide. What was left over they used for, you know, being alive. But times were tough. The chemical foodstuffs like methane were pretty limited. So from life's point of view, the situation back then was a little like trying to run a marathon on a diet of saltines.

But then evolution got creative, really creative. The sun sends the earth the energy equivalent of thousands of atomic bombs every second. Eventually life, through evolution, figured out how to directly tap the energy in all that sunlight. By combining light particles with molecules of carbon dioxide and water, photosynthesis opened the energy floodgates, and it freed life from its starvation diet. Don't care yet - well, take a deep breath.

The atmospheric oxygen you're sucking in is only there because of photosynthesis. If it stopped, the oxygen in the air would react away pretty quickly. And why is that oxygen so important for the Earth's history? Well, for starters, brains like ours could never have evolved without the high-powered biochemistry that oxygen allows.

So that means you can thank photosynthesis for even thinking about thanking photosynthesis. From ocean plankton to Venus flytraps, inside every plant, there is an insanely complex little molecular engine that turns sunlight into food and spits out oxygen. So take a moment to thank the next leaf you come across, and celebrate the glory that is photosynthesis.

SIEGEL: NPR blogger Adam Frank.


Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.