Water Balance of Cells Without Cell Walls

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The water balance of living cells. How living cells react to changes in the solute concentration of their environment depends on whether or not they have cell walls. (a) Animal cells, such as this red blood cell, do not have cell walls. (b) Plant cells do have cell walls. (Arrows indicate net water movement after the cells were first placed in these solutions.)

Source: Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology (p. 134). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

Water Balance of Cells Without Cell Walls (Campbell Biology)

To explain the behavior of a cell in a solution, we must consider both solute concentration and membrane permeability. Both factors are taken into account in the concept of tonicity, the ability of a surrounding solution to cause a cell to gain or lose water. The tonicity of a solution depends in part on its concentration of solutes that cannot cross the membrane (nonpenetrating solutes) relative to that inside the cell. If there is a higher concentration of nonpenetrating solutes in the surrounding solution, water will tend to leave the cell, and vice versa.

If a cell without a cell wall, such as an animal cell, is immersed in an environment that is isotonic to the cell (iso means “same”), there will be no net movement of water across the plasma membrane. Water diffuses across the membrane, but at the same rate in both directions. In an isotonic environment, the volume of an animal cell is stable.

Let’s transfer the cell to a solution that is hypertonic to the cell (hyper means “more,” in this case referring to non-penetrating solutes). The cell will lose water, shrivel, and probably die. This is why an increase in the salinity (saltiness) of a lake can kill the animals there; if the lake water becomes hypertonic to the animals’ cells, they might shrivel and die. However, taking up too much water can be just as hazardous as losing water. If we place the cell in a solution that is hypotonic to the cell (hypo means “less”), water will enter the cell faster than it leaves, and the cell will swell and lyse (burst) like an overfilled water balloon.

A cell without rigid cell walls can tolerate neither excessive uptake nor excessive loss of water. This problem of water balance is automatically solved if such a cell lives in isotonic surroundings. Seawater is isotonic to many marine invertebrates. The cells of most terrestrial (land-dwelling) animals are bathed in an extracellular fluid that is isotonic to the cells. In hypertonic or hypotonic environments, however, organisms that lack rigid cell walls must have other adaptations for osmoregulation, the control of solute concentrations and water balance. For example, the unicellular eukaryote Paramecium lives in pond water, which is hypotonic to the cell. Paramecium has a plasma membrane that is much less permeable to water than the membranes of most other cells, but this only slows the uptake of water, which continually enters the cell. The Paramecium cell doesn’t burst because it is also equipped with a contractile vacuole, an organelle that functions as a bilge pump to force water out of the cell as fast as it enters by osmosis. In contrast, the bacteria and archaea that live in hypersaline (excessively salty) environments have cellular mechanisms that balance the internal and external solute concentrations to ensure that water does not move out of the cell.


Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology. Pearson Education. Kindle Edition. https://www.pearson.com/us/higher-education/series/Campbell-Biology-Series/2244849.html

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