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Carotenoids, also called tetraterpenoids, are organic pigments that are found in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of plants and some other photosynthetic organisms, including some bacteria and some fungi. Carotenoids can be produced from fats and other basic organic metabolic building blocks by all these organisms. The only animals known to produce carotenoids are aphids and spider mites, which acquired the ability and genes from fungi. Carotenoids from the diet are stored in the fatty tissues of animals, and exclusively carnivorous animals obtain the compounds from animal fat.
There are over 600 known carotenoids; they are split into two classes, xanthophylls (which contain oxygen) and carotenes (which are purely hydrocarbons, and contain no oxygen). All derivatives of tetraterpenes, meaning that they are produced from 8 isoprene molecules and contain 40 carbon atoms. In general, carotenoids absorb wavelengths ranging from 400-550 nanometers (violet to green light). This causes the compounds to be deeply colored yellow, orange, or red. Carotenoids are the dominant pigment in autumn leaf coloration of about 15-30% of tree species, but many plant colors, especially reds and purples, are due to other classes of chemicals.
Carotenoids serve two key roles in plants and algae: they absorb light energy for use in photosynthesis, and they protect chlorophyll from photodamage. Carotenoids that contain unsubstituted beta-ionone rings (including beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin and gamma-carotene) have vitamin A activity (meaning that they can be converted to retinol), and these and other carotenoids can also act as antioxidants. In the eye, certain other carotenoids (lutein, astaxanthin, and zeaxanthin) apparently act directly to absorb damaging blue and near-ultraviolet light, in order to protect the macula of the retina, the part of the eye with the sharpest vision.