Changing Colors of Leaves

Nature is a great chemist. It is playing with chemical pigments to present vivid colors. Even a single leaf is a piece of art. There are many classes of pigments present inside it but their amount and times of breakdown and synthesis decides the resultant color. The different colors are on display during autumn season. The leaves begin to look less and less green. They can take yellow, orange and red hues depending upon the ratios of the amounts of different pigments present in the leaves.

Most important pigment in the leaves is the chlorophyll. It is this pigment which imparts the green color to the leaf. It’s amount is dictated by the warmth and amount of sunlight the plant receives. It’s presence is the indication that plant is alive and carrying out photosynthesis to convert carbondioxide and water into sugars and oxygen. Sugars contain energy from the sun which is harvested by tree or plant during photosynthesis.

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What happens when it is not sunny. We see a kaleidoscope of different colors in leaves. There are yellow, orange and red hues. These colors are attributed to other pigments present inside the leaves. These were there throughout the life of the leaf but there colors were masked by the strong green color.

In the autumn, when sunlight is not available in plenty, the production of chlorophyll is halted. On the other hand, the chlorophyll present begins to breakdown. At this time, color contribution from other pigments begin to show up.

Chlorophyll is a type of chlorine with magnesium as the central metallic ion. There are 4 nitrogen atoms which are Lewis bases and thus trap the positively charged magnesium ion. Chlorophyll is synthesized in the warm and sunny conditions by the plants. It’s green color dominates the color in the leaves. During autumn, the sunlight is not fully available and hence the production of chlorophyll halts and since it is not required the already present chlorophyll in the leaves begins to breakdown and hence result is the decrease in green color of the leaves.

Carotenoids and flavonoids are pigments which are always present in the leaves but there color is masked by the green color of the chlorophyll. When during autumn, the chlorophyll begins to breakdown, the color of these two classes of compounds begins to show up.

Xanthophylls which are oxygenated carotenoids are responsible for the yellow color of leaves. They do not require light for synthesis, so that xanthophylls are present in all young leaves as well as in etiolated leaves.

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A class of carotenoids known as beta carotene is responsible for the orange color in leaves. It absorb light of green and blue wavelengths and reflects red and yellow wavelengths light thus causing the orange color in leaves during autumn. Beta-carotene are also responsible for this color in carrots. They begin to degrade at the same time as chlorophyll but at a slower rate thus showing up the orange color gradually.

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There is another class of compounds called anthocyanins which begins to get synthesized in the mature leaves due to the high amount of sugars in them. These are red in color. These are thought to prolong the falling of leaves.

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Chemistry by Nature

Nature is a great chemist. It synthesizes millions of compounds every moment ranging from simple molecules like methane to very complex molecules like carbohydrates, cellulose and proteins. Most of these compounds are synthesized by plants. From the plants they are passed on to animals because the animals cannot synthesize their food by themselves. But there are many chemical reactions occurring inside the cells like breaking down the complex molecules and unlocking the energy which is stored in them.

Where does all the energy locked inside the different molecules come from? Most of it is derived from the Sun light. In many cultures like Hindus and Egyptians, Sun is worshiped as the harbinger of life. They may not be knowing the scientific facts behind it. Energy tries to dissipate and some storage is required to held it at one place and use it whenever required. Cells are the prime example.

How do the plants get hold of the energy. They carry out a reaction called photosynthesis in which they combine carbon dioxide and water in the presence of sunlight. All this work is done with the help of a big organic molecule called Chlorophyll. The products of this reaction are sugar and oxygen. When human beings consume the sugar, they break it down again to carbon dioxide and water and energy absorbed from the sun is unlocked and nourishes our bodies.

This reaction is a fuel burning reaction. But unlike the burning of fuels it happens at a very low temperature (body temperature) in our bodies although both reactions are exothermic in nature. How is this achieved? First of all, only those reactions are possible which results in products having lower energy than the reactants. But to initiate the reaction, the system has to cross a energy hill called energy of activation.

Catalysts are capable of making the reactions occur at low temperatures because they lower the energy of activation. In our bodies there are specialized proteins which are called enzymes which act as catalysts. These are very specific and one enzyme is specialized for only one task.

Catalysts also determine the kind of product that is synthesized. For example, the hydrogenation of unsaturated oils can be carried out by reaction with hydrogen. In the case of using a catalyst, only cis addition to the double bond is allowed whereas without catalyst in addition to elevated temperature and pressure conditions, the product formed is a mixture of both cis and trans products.

Since in the nature most of the reactions are carried out at ambient conditions, enzymes are generally utilized by the nature. In the case of molecules having asymmetric carbon centres a mixture of 50:50 ratio is produced without enzymes. These are called stereo-isomers and rotate the light in left and right direction. But in nature only one of these forms is synthesized. After all animals consume only one form of stereoisomers.

So nature is a great chemist.

Plants are very Smart Indeed

Plants are very smart, efficient and unforgiving in the energy management. Unlike the animals, who cannot regrow their limbs, plants see to it that inefficient leaves are cast off and replaced by new efficient one’s so that the food making machine continue to run smoothly. The leaves make the food by combining carbon dioxide and water in the presence of chlorophyll which shepherds the energy from sun and store it in the plant. Animals make use of this energy by eating the plant parts. This pigment imparts green color to the leaves and masks the faint colors of other chemicals like caroteneoids.

As soon as, the plant know that the a given leaf is under performing, it gradually decrease the supply of chlorophyll and also reclaims whatever it can of the other components. Gradually the color of leaf begins to become yellowish and it looses it strength and fall off the branch. Older leaves are constantly replenished and plant continues to make its food.

When the winter comes, the Sun is hardly visible because sky is mostly overcast. So the plants plan to shut down the food making factories. They withdraw the chlorophyll from the leaves and like polar bears go into a state of hibernation. Leaves acquire beautiful brown, reddish and yellowish hues due to the waning of the effect of chlorophyll. As the winter recedes, Sun comes out, the food making is resumed.