It is a known fact that magnesium is a very important part of photosynthesis and chlorophyll. I have looked everywhere to try to find out this question but I have never really gotten a solid answer.

What is magnesium's role in the chlorophyll molecule and what if it was replaced with another alkaline earth metal, like beryllium or calcium?

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    $\begingroup$ Reminder to close-voters: the OP cannot hope to fix the question if they're not informed what's wrong with it. This question appears on-topic to me: it's asking about an alternate biochemistry where chlorophyll has a different ligand setup. Altraxian, to avoid closure I'd remove the first half of your question "What is magnesium's role" and leave it as "What if it was replaced" which is definitely on-topic and answerable. Editing the title to reflect that change would also be helpful, if you decide to go that way! $\endgroup$
    – Dubukay
    Aug 28, 2019 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Altraxian I've added a couple of tags as you will see, as this will bring out the chemists and bio-chemists, by including the question in their feeds. $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2019 at 22:42

2 Answers 2


You couldn't just replace the Magnesium directly without making other changes.

Taking beryllium as the first example.

In Plant-like organisms there are at least two different types of Chlorophyll, they work in pairs synergistically, one as an oxidizing agent and one as a reducing agent in the ATP and NADPH cycle (synthesis of glucose), (more on Photosynthesis). You would need to consider binding energies between the Mg+2 ion (Cation) and any corresponding Anion. Binding energies for beryllium are much higher, meaning you would need higher-energy photons to be absorbed by your new version of chlorophyll (let's call it NVC).

The thing about the chlorophyll molecules is that they have tails acting as antennas, tuned to a specific wavelength of light, corresponding to it's absorption spectrum. In the case of your NVC, you'd need to tune it to a higher frequency - ie. truncate the tail of the molecule, and in a wavelength-specific way.

The electromagnetic spectrum is shown in this table, higher energies (shorter wavelengths) nearer the top.

I'm not enough of a physical chemist to tell you how you can do this, but I can say that beryllium would likely lead to your plants needing ultra-violet and beyond energy photons, perhaps even into the x-ray spectrum to work, if it would at all.

Edit: calcium's binding energy turns out to be less than magnesium, perhaps a longer-tailed NVC is in order and absorption of infra-red light would be the method of photosynthesizing.

  • $\begingroup$ Arent there some algae that appear brown because they absorb other (and more?) wavelengths? Maybe they do have Magensium alternatives, so a google might be worth it $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Aug 29, 2019 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok just check the wiki on chlorophyll, it lists all the types that exist in nature and the wavelengths they absorb. Purple bacteria, for example, use a type of chlorophyll that has no metal ion at the chlorin core. $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2019 at 15:22

I initially thought this is not about world building, but then you asked about switching magnesium for something else.

Most chlorophylls have mangesium in their chlorin core. Chlorophylls absorb energy from light and then transfer that energy to other chlorophylls by ressonance. This is a very delicate and fine tuned (no pun intended) mechanism. Changing any part of the whole molecule changes its color - seriously, check the difference between chlorophylls A and B - and thus:

  • Changes the light wavelengths that can be absorbed
  • Changes the molecule pairs that can resonate to absorb energy

In theory you can make any change to the molecule as long as it does not become poisonous and still absorbs light in some spectrum. For example, pheophytin is a blueish chlorophyll.

In practice, though, nature selects for what is most efficient. Red and purple-leaved plants do exist, but looks like the green variety of chlorophyll is unmatched in photosynthetic efficiency. A different planet with a different parent star might make it so that some other color is best. But under a sky that is blue most of the day and red by the end of it? Go for something that absorbs those colors, causing the leaf to be green. In other words, magnesium-based chlorophylls.

Also notice that the atom you wish to use must be abundant. You would be hardpressed evolving niobium-based chlorophylls regardless of their color, for example.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the key here is why the desire to make the change? Presumably the OP wants to build a world where photosynthesis doesn't use magnesium, and wants to know what that world would be like. As to why that would happen, maybe this world is magnesium-poor... $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Aug 29, 2019 at 14:45

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