Tonicity in Living Systems

Related Posts

The left photo shows a plant that has wilted, with dark green leaves that are shriveled, and appear dry.  The photo on the right shows a healthy plant, with broad light green leaves that appear soft and pliable.
Without adequate water, the plant on the left has lost turgor pressure, visible in its wilting. Watering the plant (right) will restore the turgor pressure. (credit: Victor M. Vicente Selvas)

OpenStax Biology 2e

In a hypotonic environment, water enters a cell, and the cell swells. In an isotonic condition, the relative solute and solvent concentrations are equal on both membrane sides. There is no net water movement; therefore, there is no change in the cell’s size. 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 comprising 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 water amounts 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 cell’s death.

Various living things have ways of controlling the effects of osmosis—a mechanism we call 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 cell wall’s limit, so the cell will not lyse. The cytoplasm in plants is always slightly hypertonic to the cellular environment, and water will always enter a cell if water is available. This water inflow produces turgor pressure, which stiffens the plant’s cell walls. In nonwoody plants, turgor pressure supports the plant. Conversly, if you do not water the plant, 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. We call this plasmolysis. Plants lose turgor pressure in this condition and wilt.

– What is the cell structure in plants that prevents cell lysis in a hypotonic solution?

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 solution’s tonicity in which it is bathed. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

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.

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)

Many marine invertebrates have internal salt levels matched to their environments, making them isotonic with the water in which they live. Fish, however, must spend approximately five percent of their metabolic energy maintaining osmotic homeostasis. Freshwater fish live in an environment that is hypotonic to their cells. These fish actively take in salt through their gills and excrete diluted urine to rid themselves of excess water. Saltwater fish live in the reverse environment, which is hypertonic to their cells, and they secrete salt through their gills and excrete highly concentrated urine.

In vertebrates, the kidneys regulate the water amount in the body. Osmoreceptors are specialized cells in the brain that monitor solute concentration in the blood. If the solute levels increase beyond a certain range, a hormone releases that slows water loss through the kidney and dilutes the blood to safer levels. Animals also have high albumin concentrations, which the liver produces, in their blood. This protein is too large to pass easily through plasma membranes and is a major factor in controlling the osmotic pressures applied to tissues.

– What is a mixture of sodium chloride in water and has a number of uses in medicine?

Maintaining the correct intracellular turgor pressure is essential for the growth and division of all prokaryotic cells. The selective permeability of the cell membrane renders bacteria vulnerable to changes in water potential between the intracellular and extracellular environments. In order to prevent lysis or dehydration, many bacteria possess active mechanisms to regulate intracellular solute concentrations under osmotically unfavourable growth conditions. Intracellular accumulation of these ‘osmoprotectants’ alters the osmotic potential of the cytoplasm, indirectly influencing the movement of water across the bacterial cell membrane.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: