Following the Energy

November 11, 2013

As an exercise to transition from ecology to biochemistry in Biology class, I had students follow the energy from the Sun to humans via potatoes. After all, we’ve been putting together food webs, following energy through the food chain, and now I want to start talking about the short and long chained biochemical molecules like glucose and starch, at least at a general level.

Leaves in the forest canopy capturing sunlight. Photosynthesis in action. Because of all the captured (and reflected) sunlight the floor of the forest beneath the canopy is dark with very little undergrowth. Note: these are not potato trees, potatoes tend to grow under the ground, and potato plants are short, bushy herbs.

Leaves in the forest canopy capturing sunlight. Photosynthesis in action. Because of all the captured (and reflected) sunlight the floor of the forest beneath the canopy is dark with very little undergrowth. Note: these are not potato trees, potatoes tend to grow under the ground, and potato plants are short, bushy herbs.

So, we start with photosynthesis. The leaves of the potato plant capture sunlight and combine water and carbon dioxide to produce glucose with oxygen as a by-product.

6 H_2O + 6 CO_2 \xrightarrow{light} C_6H_{12}O_6 + 6 O_2

This reaction takes radiative energy from the Sun, and stores it as chemical energy in the bonds of the glucose molecule.

A glucose molecules with the carbon and oxygen atoms in the ring highlighted.

A glucose molecule that stores the energy from photosynthesis. The carbon and oxygen atoms in the ring are highlighted.

Glucose is a simple sugar, one of the basic carbohydrate molecules (my bio class has not done the testing for carbohydrates yet, but we will soon). Simple carbohydrates are monomers that can be chained together to produce more complex molecules.

Sizable packets of solar energy stored in the chemical bonds of the carbs.

Sizable packets of solar energy stored in the chemical bonds of the carbs.

The potato plant chains together a series of glucose molecules it produces by photosynthesis into long chained polymers called starches. Starches are good for long-term storage of the energy because, for one thing, they don’t dissolve in water the way glucose does. (A good metaphor for this might be to have students carry a handful of beads to represent a bunch of glucose molecules versus carrying a string of beads to represent the starch).

Starch molecules form by chaining together glucose molecules. Water is a byproduct.

Starch molecules form by chaining together glucose molecules. Water is a byproduct.

The large stash of energy consolidated into the starch is an inviting target for animals like humans. We eat things like potatoes to get the starches, only we usually refer to them by their other name, carbs. Carbs are short for complex carbohydrates: since glucose is a simple carbohydrate, a chain of glucoses is called a complex carbohydrate. This is why people on low-carb diets try to avoid foods like potatoes.

For those of us who do eat potatoes, however, we need to break the starches down into their constituent glucose molecules to get the energy. When we eat potatoes, we chew (masticate) them to break down the cell walls and expose the starches to the enzymes, like amylase in our saliva, that breaks apart the long carbohydrate chains into simple glucose molecules. Enzymes, like amylase, are catalysts. Catalysts are substances that accelerate a chemical reaction, but are not used up in the process.

The body extracts these glucose molecules from the digested food in the small intestines. The glucose is absorbed through the small, finger-like, capillary-filled villi that line the small intestines, and gets into the blood plasma. The circulatory system transports the glucose in the plasma to cells throughout the body.

Cells use the glucose for energy by reversing the photosynthesis reaction, in a reaction called respiration:

C_6H_{12}O_6 + 6 O_2 \xrightarrow{}   6 H_2O + 6 CO_2 + Energy

So the cells use respiration to liberate the energy the potato plant captured from the Sun.

Teachers’ Note

I very much liked how this exercise worked. Trying to follow the energy through the plant and human, while using as much biological vocabulary as possible, really worked to integrate our discussions of anatomy and ecology, and helped introduce biochemistry. I think I’ll try other exercises like this, where students try to follow a specific atom through the human body or through the environment (as we study global biogeochemical cycles). It might also be useful to use this as an example of how isotopic tracers work.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2013. Following the Energy, Retrieved December 11th, 2017, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

A Model Solar Water Heater

May 13, 2012

One of the middle-school projects is to build a little solar water heater. By simply pumping water through a black tube that’s sitting in the sun, you can raise the temperature of the water by about 15°C in about 15 minutes.

The solar water heater in action.

Next year I want to try building an actual solar water heater, similar to the passive air heater my students built two years ago, with the tubing in a greenhouse box to see just how efficient we can make it.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2012. A Model Solar Water Heater, Retrieved December 11th, 2017, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Creative Commons License
Montessori Muddle by Montessori Muddle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.