CIE A Level Biology (9700) exams from 2022

Revision Notes

13.2.2 Investigating the Rate of Photosynthesis

Investigating the Rate of Photosynthesis: Redox Indicators

  • The light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis take place in the thylakoid membrane and involve the release of high-energy electrons from chlorophyll a molecules
  • These electrons are picked up by electron acceptors and then passed down the electron transport chain
  • However, if a redox indicator (such as DCPIP or methylene blue) is present, the indicator takes up the electrons instead
  • This causes the indicator to change colour
    • DCPIP: oxidised (blue) → accepts electrons → reduced (colourless)
    • Methylene blue: oxidised (blue) → accepts electrons → reduced (colourless)
    • The colour of the reduced solution may appear green because the chlorophyll have a green colour
  • The rate at which the redox indicator changes colour from its oxidised state to its reduced state can be used as a measure of the rate of photosynthesis
    • When light is at a higher intensity, or at more preferable light wavelengths, the rate of photoactivation of electrons is faster, therefore the rate of reduction of the indicator is faster


Step 1:
Leaves are crushed in a liquid known as an isolation medium

  • This produces a concentrated leaf extract that contains a suspension of intact and functional chloroplasts
  • The medium must have the same water potential as the leaf cells (so the chloroplasts don’t shrivel or burst) and contain a buffer (to keep the pH constant). It should also be ice-cold (to avoid damaging the chloroplasts and to maintain membrane structure)

Step 2:
Small tubes are set up with different intensities, or different colours (wavelengths) of light shining of them

  • If different intensities of light are used, they must all be of the same wavelength (same colour of light)
  • If different wavelengths of light are used, they must all be of the same light intensity

Step 3:
DCPIP of methylene blue indicator is added to each tube, as well as a small volume of the leaf extract

Step 4:
The time taken for the redox indicator to go colourless is recorded

  • This is a measure of the rate of photosynthesis

Exam Tip

In chemistry the acronym ‘OILRIG’ is used to remember if something is being oxidised or reduced. Oxidation Is Loss (of electrons) and Reduction Is Gain (of electrons). Therefore the oxidised state is when it hasn’t accepted electrons and the reduced state has accepted electrons.

Investigating the Rate of Photosynthesis: Aquatic Plants

  • Investigations to determine the effects of light intensity, carbon dioxide concentration and temperature on the rate of photosynthesis can be carried out using aquatic plants, such as Elodea or Cabomba (types of pondweed)
  • The effect of these limiting factors on the rate of photosynthesis can be investigated in the following ways:
    • Light intensity – change the distance (d) of a light source from the plant (light intensity is proportional to 1/d2)
    • Carbon dioxide concentration – add different quantities of sodium hydrogencarbonate (NaHCO3) to the water surrounding the plant, this dissolves to produce CO2
    • Temperature (of the solution surrounding the plant) – place the boiling tube containing the submerged plant in water baths of different temperatures
  • Whilst changing one of these factors during the investigation (as described below), ensure the other two remain constant
    • For example, when investigating the effect of light intensity on the rate of photosynthesis, a glass tank should be placed in between the lamp and the boiling tube containing the pondweed to absorb heat from the lamp – this prevents the solution surrounding the plant from changing temperature


Step 1:
Ensure the water is well aerated before use by bubbling air through it

  • This will ensure oxygen gas given off by the plant during the investigation form bubbles and do not dissolve in the water

Step 2:
Ensure the plant has been well illuminated before use

  • This will ensure that the plant contains all the enzymes required for photosynthesis and that any changes of rate are due to the independent variable

Step 3:
Set up the apparatus in a darkened room

  • Ensure the pondweed is submerged in sodium hydrogencarbonate solution (1%) – this ensures the pondweed has a controlled supply of carbon dioxide (a reactant in photosynthesis)

Step 4:
Cut the stem of the pondweed cleanly just before placing into the boiling tube

Step 5:
Measure the volume of gas collected in the gas-syringe in a set period of time (eg. 5 minutes)

Step 6:
Change the independent variable (ie. change the light intensity, carbon dioxide concentration or temperature depending on which limiting factor you are investigating) and repeat step 5

Step 7:
Record the results in a table and plot a graph of volume of oxygen produced per minute against the distance from the lamp (if investigating light intensity), carbon dioxide concentration, or temperature

Exam Tip

Learn the 3 limiting factors and how each one can be altered in an laboratory environment:
Light intensity – the distance of the light source from the plant (intensity ∝ 1/d2)

Temperature – changing the temperature of the water bath the test tube sits in

Carbon dioxide – the amount of NaHCO3 dissolved in the water the pondweed is in

Also remember that the variables not being tested (the control variables) must be kept constant.


Alistair graduated from Oxford University in 2014 with a degree in Biological Sciences. He has taught GCSE/IGCSE Biology, as well as Biology and Environmental Systems & Societies for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. While teaching in Oxford, Alistair completed his MA Education as Head of Department for Environmental Systems and Societies.

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