Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will explore the following questions:

  • Why are osmoregulation and osmotic balance important to body functions?
  • What is osmolarity and how is it measured?
  • What are osmoregulators or osmoconformers, and how do these tools allow animals to adapt to different environments?

Connection for AP® Courses

Connection for AP® Courses

Much of the information in this chapter is not within the scope for AP®. However, the chapter is filled with illustrative examples that are applicable to concepts we’ve explored previously, including chemistry, structure of the plasma cell membrane, and movement of molecules across membranes. With this in mind, it is helpful to have a general understanding how the human body, specifically the excretory system, maintains osmotic homeostasis despite the influence of external factors like temperature, diet, and varying environmental conditions. For example, if we drink eight to ten glasses of water per day, the human body excretes that water via urination, defecation, sweating, and, to a small extent, respiration.

Information presented and the examples highlighted in the section support concepts outlined in Big Idea 2 of the AP® Biology Curriculum Framework. The AP® Learning Objectives listed in the Curriculum Framework provide a transparent foundation for the AP® Biology course, an inquiry-based laboratory experience, instructional activities, and AP® exam questions. A learning objective merges required content with one or more of the seven science practices.

Big Idea 2 Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce, and to maintain dynamic homeostasis.
Enduring Understanding 2.B Growth, reproduction and dynamic homeostasis require that cell create and maintain internal environments that are different form their external environment.
Essential Knowledge 2.B.1 Cell membranes are selectively permeable due to their structure.
Science Practice 1.1 The student can create representations and models of natural or man-made phenomena and systems in the domain.
Science Practice 7.1 The student can connect phenomena and models across spatial and temporal scales.
Science Practice 7.2 The student can connect concepts in and across domain(s) to generalize or extrapolate in and/or across enduring understandings and/or big ideas.
Learning Objective 2.11 The student is able to construct models that connect the movement of molecules across membranes with membrane structure and function.
Essential Knowledge 2.B.2 Growth and dynamic homeostasis are maintained by the constant movement of molecules across membranes.
Science Practice 1.4 The student can use representations and models to analyze situations or solve problems qualitatively and quantitatively.
Learning Objective 2.12 The student is able to use representations and models to analyze situations or solve problems qualitatively and quantitatively to investigate whether dynamic homeostasis is maintained by the active movement of molecules across membranes.

Osmosis is the diffusion of water across a membrane in response to osmotic pressure caused by an imbalance of molecules on either side of the membrane. Osmoregulation is the process of maintenance of salt and water balance (osmotic balance) across membranes within the body’s fluids, which are composed of water, plus electrolytes and non-electrolytes. An electrolyte is a solute that dissociates into ions when dissolved in water. A non-electrolyte, in contrast, doesn’t dissociate into ions during water dissolution. Both electrolytes and non-electrolytes contribute to the osmotic balance. The body’s fluids include blood plasma, the cytosol within cells, and interstitial fluid, the fluid that exists in the spaces between cells and tissues of the body. The membranes of the body, such as the pleural, serous, and cell membranes are semi-permeable membranes. Semi-permeable membranes are permeable (or permissive) to certain types of solutes and water. Solutions on two sides of a semi-permeable membrane tend to equalize in solute concentration by movement of solutes and/or water across the membrane. As seen in Figure 32.2, a cell placed in water tends to swell due to gain of water from the hypotonic or low salt environment. A cell placed in a solution with higher salt concentration, on the other hand, tends to make the membrane shrivel up due to loss of water into the hypertonic or high salt environment. Isotonic cells have an equal concentration of solutes inside and outside the cell; this equalizes the osmotic pressure on either side of the cell membrane which is a semi-permeable membrane.

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. One of the bloated cells in the hypotonic solution bursts.
Figure 32.2 Cells placed in a hypertonic environment tend to shrink due to loss of water. In a hypotonic environment, cells tend to swell due to intake of water. The blood maintains an isotonic environment so that cells neither shrink nor swell. (credit: Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

The body does not exist in isolation. There is a constant input of water and electrolytes into the system. While osmoregulation is achieved across membranes within the body, excess electrolytes and wastes are transported to the kidneys and excreted, helping to maintain osmotic balance.

Need for Osmoregulation

Need for Osmoregulation

Biological systems constantly interact and exchange water and nutrients with the environment by way of consumption of food and water and through excretion in the form of sweat, urine, and feces. Without a mechanism to regulate osmotic pressure, or when a disease damages this mechanism, there is a tendency to accumulate toxic waste and water, which can have dire consequences.

Mammalian systems have evolved to regulate not only the overall osmotic pressure across membranes, but also specific concentrations of important electrolytes in the three major fluid compartments: blood plasma, extracellular fluid, and intracellular fluid. Since osmotic pressure is regulated by the movement of water across membranes, the volume of the fluid compartments can also change temporarily. Because blood plasma is one of the fluid components, osmotic pressures have a direct bearing on blood pressure.

Transport of Electrolytes Across Cell Membranes

Transport of Electrolytes Across Cell Membranes

Electrolytes, such as sodium chloride, ionize in water, meaning that they dissociate into their component ions. In water, sodium chloride (NaCl), dissociates into the sodium ion (Na+) and the chloride ion (Cl). The most important ions, whose concentrations are very closely regulated in body fluids, are the cations sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca+2), magnesium (Mg+2), and the anions chloride (Cl), carbonate (CO3–2), bicarbonate (HCO3), and phosphate(PO3). Electrolytes are lost from the body during urination and perspiration. For this reason, athletes are encouraged to replace electrolytes and fluids during periods of increased activity and perspiration.

Osmotic pressure is influenced by the concentration of solutes in a solution. It is directly proportional to the number of solute atoms or molecules and not dependent on the size of the solute molecules. Because electrolytes dissociate into their component ions, they, in essence, add more solute particles into the solution and have a greater effect on osmotic pressure, per mass than compounds that do not dissociate in water, such as glucose.

Water can pass through membranes by passive diffusion. If electrolyte ions could passively diffuse across membranes, it would be impossible to maintain specific concentrations of ions in each fluid compartment therefore they require special mechanisms to cross the semi-permeable membranes in the body. This movement can be accomplished by facilitated diffusion and active transport. Facilitated diffusion requires protein-based channels for moving the solute. Active transport requires energy in the form of ATP conversion, carrier proteins, or pumps in order to move ions against the concentration gradient.

Concept of Osmolality and Milliequivalent

Concept of Osmolality and Milliequivalent

In order to calculate osmotic pressure, it is necessary to understand how solute concentrations are measured. The unit for measuring solutes is the mole. One mole is defined as the gram molecular weight of the solute. For example, the molecular weight of sodium chloride is 58.44. Thus, one mole of sodium chloride weighs 58.44 grams. The molarity of a solution is the number of moles of solute per liter of solution. The molality of a solution is the number of moles of solute per kilogram of solvent. If the solvent is water, one kilogram of water is equal to one liter of water. While molarity and molality are used to express the concentration of solutions, electrolyte concentrations are usually expressed in terms of milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L): the mEq/L is equal to the ion concentration (in millimoles) multiplied by the number of electrical charges on the ion. The unit of milliequivalent takes into consideration the ions present in the solution-since electrolytes form ions in aqueous solutions, and the charge on the ions.

Thus, for ions that have a charge of one, one milliequivalent is equal to one millimole. For ions that have a charge of two (like calcium), one milliequivalent is equal to 0.5 millimoles. Another unit for the expression of electrolyte concentration is the milliosmole (mOsm), which is the number of milliequivalents of solute per kilogram of solvent. Body fluids are usually maintained within the range of 280 to 300 mOsm.

Osmoregulators and Osmoconformers

Osmoregulators and Osmoconformers

Persons lost at sea without any fresh water to drink are at risk of severe dehydration because the human body cannot adapt to drinking seawater, which is hypertonic in comparison to body fluids. Organisms such as goldfish that can tolerate only a relatively narrow range of salinity are referred to as stenohaline. About 90 percent of all bony fish are restricted to either freshwater or seawater. They are incapable of osmotic regulation in the opposite environment. It is possible, however, for a few fishes like salmon to spend part of their life in fresh water and part in sea water. Organisms like the salmon and molly that can tolerate a relatively wide range of salinity are referred to as euryhaline organisms. This is possible because some fish have evolved osmoregulatory mechanisms to survive in all kinds of aquatic environments. When they live in fresh water, their bodies tend to take up water because the environment is relatively hypotonic, as illustrated in Figure 32.3a. In such hypotonic environments, these fish do not drink much water. Instead, they pass a lot of very dilute urine, and they achieve electrolyte balance by active transport of salts through the gills. When they move to a hypertonic marine environment, these fish start drinking sea water; they excrete the excess salts through their gills and their urine, as illustrated in Figure 32.3b. Most marine invertebrates, on the other hand, may be isotonic with sea water (osmoconformers). Their body fluid concentrations conform to changes in seawater concentration. Cartilaginous fishes’ salt composition of the blood is similar to bony fishes; however, the blood of sharks contains the organic compounds urea and trimethylamine oxide (TMAO). This does not mean that their electrolyte composition is similar to that of sea water. They achieve isotonicity with the sea by storing large concentrations of urea. These animals that secrete urea are called ureotelic animals. TMAO stabilizes proteins in the presence of high urea levels, preventing the disruption of peptide bonds that would occur in other animals exposed to similar levels of urea. Sharks are cartilaginous fish with a rectal gland to secrete salt and assist in osmoregulation.

Illustration A shows a fish in a freshwater environment, where water is absorbed through the skin. To compensate, the fish drinks little water and excretes dilute urine. Sodium, potassium and chlorine ions are lost through the skin, and the fish actively transports these same ions into its gills to compensate for this loss. Illustration B shows a fish in a saltwater environment, where water is lost through the skin. To compensate, the fish drinks ample water and excretes concentrated urine. It absorbs sodium, potassium, and chlorine ions through its skin, and excretes them through its gills.
Figure 32.3 Fish are osmoregulators, but must use different mechanisms to survive in (a) freshwater or (b) saltwater environments. (credit: modification of work by Duane Raver, NOAA)

Career Connection

Dialysis Technician

Dialysis is a medical process of removing wastes and excess water from the blood by diffusion and ultrafiltration. When kidney function fails, dialysis must be done to artificially rid the body of wastes. This is a vital process to keep patients alive. In some cases, the patients undergo artificial dialysis until they are eligible for a kidney transplant. In others who are not candidates for kidney transplants, dialysis is a life-long necessity.

Dialysis technicians typically work in hospitals and clinics. While some roles in this field include equipment development and maintenance, most dialysis technicians work in direct patient care. Their on-the-job duties, which typically occur under the direct supervision of a registered nurse, focus on providing dialysis treatments. This can include reviewing patient history and current condition, assessing and responding to patient needs before and during treatment, and monitoring the dialysis process. Treatment may include taking and reporting a patient’s vital signs and preparing solutions and equipment to ensure accurate and sterile procedures.

Everyday Connection for AP® Courses

Patients undergoing dialysis use dialysis machines such as the one shown here. Their blood runs through a tube that is immersed in a solution, with the walls of the tube actually being semipermeable membranes. The solution is made so that urea, the main waste product produced by humans, is pulled out of the blood through diffusion. The semi-permeable tube wall allows urea through, but keeps the larger components of the blood, such as proteins and blood cells, within the tube. The cleaned blood is eventually returned to the body.

A photo shows a man’s arm connected to a dialysis machine. There are two blood-filled tubes conveying blood to and from his arm. The machine has a cylindrical filter, a mechanical circular pump, a bag of saline, and a display screen with various readings.
Figure 32.4
How do dialysis machines remove harmful urea from the blood?
  1. by facilitated diffusion that allows urea to diffuse out of the blood
  2. by active transport, which allows urea to diffuse out of the blood
  3. by creating an osmotic gradient that allows urea to diffuse out of the blood across a permeable membrane
  4. by creating an osmotic gradient that allows urea to diffuse out of the blood

Science Practice Connection for AP® Courses

Think About It

Why is excretion important in order to achieve osmotic balance?