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Hypertonic solutions

A hypertonic     environment has a higher solute concentration than the fluid inside the cell. The rules of osmosis dictate that water will, therefore, leave the cell and move into the extracellular fluid (outside the cell).

Isotonic solutions

In an isotonic     solution, the extracellular fluid has the same concentration as the cell. In this case, there will be no net movement of water into or out of the cell, although water will still move in and out. Blood cells and plant cells in hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic solutions take on characteristic appearances ( [link] ).

Art connection

The left part of this illustration shows shriveled red blood cells bathed in a hypertonic solution. The middle part shows healthy red blood cells bathed in an isotonic solution, and the right part shows bloated red blood cells bathed in a hypotonic solution.
Osmosis changes the shape of red blood cells in hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic solutions. (credit: Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

A doctor injects a patient with what the doctor thinks is an isotonic saline solution. The patient dies, and an autopsy reveals that many red blood cells have been destroyed. Do you think the solution the doctor injected was really isotonic?

For a video illustrating the process of diffusion in solutions, visit this site .

5.1f tonicity in living systems

In a hypotonic environment, water enters a cell, and the cell swells. In an isotonic condition, the relative concentrations of solute and solvent are equal on both sides of the membrane. There is no net water movement; therefore, there is no change in the size of the cell. In a hypertonic solution, water leaves a cell and the cell shrinks. If either the hypo- or hyper- condition goes to excess, the cell’s functions become compromised, and the cell may be destroyed.

A red blood cell will burst, or lyse, when it swells beyond the plasma membrane’s capability to expand. Remember, the membrane resembles a mosaic, with discrete spaces between the molecules composing it. If the cell swells, and the spaces between the lipids and proteins become too large, the cell will break apart.

In contrast, when excessive amounts of water leave a red blood cell, the cell shrinks, or crenates. This has the effect of concentrating the solutes left in the cell, making the cytosol denser and interfering with diffusion within the cell. The cell’s ability to function will be compromised and may also result in the death of the cell.

Various living things have ways of controlling the effects of osmosis—a mechanism called osmoregulation. Some organisms, such as plants, fungi, bacteria, and some protists, have cell walls that surround the plasma membrane and prevent cell lysis in a hypotonic solution. The plasma membrane can only expand to the limit of the cell wall, so the cell will not lyse. In fact, the cytoplasm in plants is always slightly hypertonic to the cellular environment, and water will always enter a cell if water is available. This inflow of water produces turgor pressure, which stiffens the cell walls of the plant ( [link] ). In nonwoody plants, turgor pressure supports the plant. Conversely, if the plant is not watered, the extracellular fluid will become hypertonic, causing water to leave the cell. In this condition, the cell does not shrink because the cell wall is not flexible. However, the cell membrane detaches from the wall and constricts the cytoplasm. This is called plasmolysis     . Plants lose turgor pressure in this condition and wilt ( [link] ).

The left part of this image shows a plant cell bathed in a hypertonic solution so that the plasma membrane has pulled away completely from the cell wall, and the central vacuole has shrunk. The middle part shows a plant cell bathed in an isotonic solution; the plasma membrane has pulled away from the cell wall a bit, and the central vacuole has shrunk. The right part shows a plant cell in a hypotonic solution. The central vacuole is large, and the plasma membrane is pressed against the cell wall.
The turgor pressure within a plant cell depends on the tonicity of the solution that it is bathed in. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)
The left photo shows a plant that has wilted, and the right photo shows a healthy plant.
Without adequate water, the plant on the left has lost turgor pressure, visible in its wilting; the turgor pressure is restored by watering it (right). (credit: Victor M. Vicente Selvas)

Tonicity is a concern for all living things. For example, paramecia and amoebas, which are protists that lack cell walls, have contractile vacuoles. This vesicle collects excess water from the cell and pumps it out, keeping the cell from lysing as it takes on water from its environment ( [link] ).

A transmission electron micrograph shows an oval-shaped cell. Contractile vacuoles are prominent structures embedded in the cell membrane that pump out water.
A paramecium’s contractile vacuole, here visualized using bright field light microscopy at 480x magnification, continuously pumps water out of the organism’s body to keep it from bursting in a hypotonic medium. (credit: modification of work by NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Section summary

The passive forms of transport, diffusion and osmosis, move materials of small molecular weight across membranes. Substances diffuse from areas of high concentration to areas of lower concentration, and this process continues until the substance is evenly distributed in a system. In solutions containing more than one substance, each type of molecule diffuses according to its own concentration gradient, independent of the diffusion of other substances. Many factors can affect the rate of diffusion, including concentration gradient, size of the particles that are diffusing, temperature of the system, and so on.

In living systems, diffusion of substances into and out of cells is mediated by the plasma membrane. Some materials diffuse readily through the membrane, but others are hindered, and their passage is made possible by specialized proteins, such as channels and transporters. The chemistry of living things occurs in aqueous solutions, and balancing the concentrations of those solutions is an ongoing problem. In living systems, diffusion of some substances would be slow or difficult without membrane proteins that facilitate transport.

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Source:  OpenStax, General biology part i - mixed majors. OpenStax CNX. May 16, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11749/1.5
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