Chloroplasts are organelles found in plant cells and eukaryotic algae that conduct photosynthesis. Chloroplasts absorb light and use it in conjunction with water and carbon dioxide to produce sugars, the raw material for energy and biomass production in all green plants and the animals that depend on them, directly or indirectly, for food. Chloroplasts capture light energy to conserve free energy in the form of ATP and reduce NADP to NADPH through a complex set of processes called photosynthesis. The word chloroplast is derived from the Greek words chloros which means green and plast which means form or entity. Chloroplasts are members of a class of organelles known as plastids.
Chloroplasts are one of the many different types of organelles in the cell. They are generally considered to have originated as endosymbiotic cyanobacteria (i.e. blue-green algae). This was first suggested by Mereschkowsky in 1905 after an observation by Schimper in 1883 that chloroplasts closely resemble cyanobacteria. All chloroplasts are thought to derive directly or indirectly from a single endosymbiotic event (in the Archaeplastida), except for Paulinella chromatophora, which has recently acquired a photosynthetic cyanobacterial endosymbiont which is not closely related to chloroplasts of other eukaryotes. In that they derive from an endosymbiotic event, chloroplasts are similar to mitochondria but chloroplasts are found only in plants and protista. The chloroplast is surrounded by a double-layered composite membrane with an intermembrane space; it has its own DNA and is involved in energy metabolism. Further, it has reticulations, or many infoldings, filling the inner spaces.
In green plants, chloroplasts are surrounded by two lipid-bilayer membranes. The inner membrane is now believed to correspond to the outer membrane of the ancestral cyanobacterium. Chloroplasts have their own genome, which is considerably reduced compared to that of free-living cyanobacteria, but the parts that are still present show clear similarities with the cyanobacterial genome. Plastids may contain 60-100 genes whereas cyanobacteria often contain more than 1500 genes. Many of the missing genes are encoded in the nuclear genome of the host. The transfer of nuclear information has been estimated in tobacco plants at one gene for every 16000 pollen grains.
In some algae (such as the heterokonts and other protists such as Euglenozoa and Cercozoa), chloroplasts seem to have evolved through a secondary event of endosymbiosis, in which a eukaryotic cell engulfed a second eukaryotic cell containing chloroplasts, forming chloroplasts with three or four membrane layers. In some cases, such secondary endosymbionts may have themselves been engulfed by still other eukaryotes, thus forming tertiary endosymbionts. In the alga Chlorella, there is only one chloroplast, which is bell shaped.
In some groups of mixotrophic protists such as the dinoflagellates, chloroplasts are separated from a captured alga or diatom and used temporarily. These klepto chloroplasts may only have a lifetime of a few days and are then replaced.
Chloroplasts are observable morphologically as flat discs usually 2 to 10 micrometer in diameter and 1 micrometer thick. In land plants they are generally 5 μm in diameter and 2.3 μm thick. The chloroplast is contained by an envelope that consists of an inner and an outer phospholipid membrane. Between these two layers is the intermembrane space. A typical [parenchyma] cell contains about 10 to 100 chloroplasts.
The material within the chloroplast is called the stroma, corresponding to the cytosol of the original bacterium, and contains one or more molecules of small circular DNA. It also contains ribosomes, although most of its proteins are encoded by genes contained in the host cell nucleus, with the protein products transported to the chloroplast.
Within the stroma are stacks of thylakoids, the sub-organelles which are the site of photosynthesis. The thylakoids are arranged in stacks called grana (singular: granum). A thylakoid has a flattened disk shape. Inside it is an empty area called the thylakoid space or lumen. Photosynthesis takes place on the thylakoid membrane; as in mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation, it involves the coupling of cross-membrane fluxes with biosynthesis via the dissipation of a proton electrochemical gradient.
In the electron microscope, thylakoid membranes appear as alternating light-and-dark bands, each 0.01 μm thick. Embedded in the thylakoid membrane is the antenna complex, which consists of the light-absorbing pigments, including chlorophyll and carotenoids, and proteins (which bind the chlorophyll). This complex both increases the surface area for light capture, and allows capture of photons with a wider range of wavelengths. The energy of the incident photons is absorbed by the pigments and funneled to the reaction centre of this complex through resonance energy transfer. Two chlorophyll molecules are then ionised, producing an excited electron which then passes onto the photochemical reaction centre.
Recent studies have shown that chloroplasts can be interconnected by tubular bridges called stromules, formed as extensions of their outer membranes. Chloroplasts appear to be able to exchange proteins via stromules, and thus function as a network.