Elusive missing step in the final act of photosynthesis

After decades of effort and help from SLAC’s X-ray laser, scientists have finally seen the process by which nature creates the oxygen we breathe.

Photosynthesis plays a crucial role in shaping and sustaining life on Earth, yet many aspects of the process remain a mystery. One such mystery is how Photosystem II, a protein complex in plants, algae and cyanobacteria, harvests energy from sunlight and uses it to split water, producing the oxygen we breathe. Now researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, together with collaborators from Uppsala University, Humboldt University, and other institutions have succeeded in cracking a key secret of Photosystem II.

Using SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) and the SPring-8 Angstrom Compact free electron LAser (SACLA) in Japan, they captured for the first time in atomic detail what happens in the final moments leading up to the release of breathable oxygen. The data reveal an intermediate reaction step that had not been observed before.

Find out more on the SLAC website