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6.12: Osmosis and living with and without a cell wall

Cells are packed full of molecules. These molecules take up space, space no longer occupied by water. The concentration of water outside of the cell [H2O] out will necessarily be higher than the concentration of water inside the cell [H2O] in. This concentration gradient in solvent leads to the net movement of water into the cells183. Such a movement of solvent is known generically as osmosis. Much of this movement occurs through the membrane, which is somewhat permeable to water (see above). A surprising finding, which won Peter Agre a share of the 2003 Noble prize in chemistry, was that the membrane also contains water channels, known as aquaporins184. This links to a molecular simulation of a water molecule (yellow) moving through an aquaporin. It turns out that the rate of osmotic movement of water is dramatically reduced in the absence of aquaporins. In addition to water, aquaporin-type proteins can also facilitate the movement of other small uncharged molecules across a membrane.

The difference or gradient in the concentrations of water across the cell membrane, together with the presence of aquaporins, leads to a system that is capable of doing work. The water gradient, can lift a fraction of the solution against the force of gravity, something involved in having plants stand up straight185. How is this possible? If we think of a particular molecule in solution, it will move around through collisions with its neighbors. These collisions drive the movement of particles randomly. But if there is a higher concentration of molecules on one side of a membrane compared to the other, then the random movement of molecules will lead to a net flux of molecules from the area of high concentration to that of low concentration, even though each molecule on its own moves randomly, that is, without a preferred direction [this video 186 is good at illustrating this behavior]. At equilibrium, the force generated by the net flux of water moving down its concentration gradient is balanced by forces acting in the other direction.

The water concentration gradient across the plasma membrane of most organisms leads to an influx of water into the cell. As water enters, the plasma membrane expands; you might want to think about how that occurs, in terms of membrane structure. If the influx of water continued unopposed, the membrane would eventually burst like an over-inflated balloon, killing the cell. One strategy to avoid this lethal outcome, adopted by a range of organisms, is to build a semi-rigid “cell wall” exterior to the plasma membrane. The synthesis of this cell wall is based on the controlled assembly of macromolecules secreted by the cell through the process of exocytosis (see above). As water passes through the plasma membrane and into the cell (driven by osmosis), the plasma membrane is pressed up against the cell wall. The force exerted by the rigid cell wall on the membrane balances the force of water entering the cell. When the two forces are equal, the net influx of water into the cell stops. Conversely, if the [H2O]outside decreases, this pressure is reduced, the membrane moves away from the cell wall and, because they are only semi-rigid, the walls flex. It is this behavior that causes plants to wilt when they do not get enough water. These are passive behaviors, based on the structure of the cell wall; they are built into the wall as it is assembled. Once the cell wall has been built, a cell with a cell wall does not need to expend energy to resist osmotic effects. Plants, fungi, bacteria and archaea all have cell walls. A number of antibiotics work by disrupting the assembly of bacterial cell walls. This leaves the bacteria osmotically sensitive, water enters these cells until they burst and die.

Questions to answer & to ponder:

  • Make a graph of the water concentration across a typical cellular membrane for an organism living in fresh water; explain what factors influenced your drawing.
  • Look at this video: How could you use reverse osmosis to purify water?
  • Where does the energy involved in moving molecules come from?
  • Plants and animals are both eukaryotes; how would you decide whether the common ancestor of the eukaryotes had a cell wall.
  • Why does an aquaporin channel not allow a Na+ ion to pass through it?
  • If there is no net flux of A, even if there is a concentration gradient between two points, what can we conclude?


183 One important note here is that if you learn about osmosis in chemistry classes you will almost certainly be taught that water moves from a region of low SOLUTE concentration to a region of high SOLUTE concentration. These two definitions mean the same thing but it is easy to get confused.

184 Water Homeostasis: Evolutionary Medicine:

185 Interested? check out the "water" virtual lab: http://virtuallaboratory.colorado.ed...s/InWater.html



  • Michael W. Klymkowsky (University of Colorado Boulder) and Melanie M. Cooper (Michigan State University) with significant contributions by Emina Begovic & some editorial assistance of Rebecca Klymkowsky.