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3.3B: Osmosis

Osmosis is the movement of water across a membrane from an area of low solute concentration to an area of high solute concentration.

 

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

 

Describe the process of osmosis and explain how concentration gradient affects osmosis

 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

 

  • Osmosis occurs according to the concentration gradient of water across the membrane, which is inversely proportional to the concentration of solutes.
  • Osmosis occurs until the concentration gradient of water goes to zero or until the hydrostatic pressure of the water balances the osmotic pressure.
  • Osmosis occurs when there is a concentration gradient of a solute within a solution, but the membrane does not allow diffusion of the solute.

 

Key Terms

 

  • solute: Any substance that is dissolved in a liquid solvent to create a solution
  • osmosis: The net movement of solvent molecules from a region of high solvent potential to a region of lower solvent potential through a partially permeable membrane
  • semipermeable membrane: A type of biological membrane that will allow certain molecules or ions to pass through it by diffusion and occasionally by specialized facilitated diffusion

 

Osmosis and Semipermeable Membranes

 

Osmosis is the movement of water through a semipermeable membrane according to the concentration gradient of water across the membrane, which is inversely proportional to the concentration of solutes. Semipermeable membranes, also termed selectively permeable membranes or partially permeable membranes, allow certain molecules or ions to pass through by diffusion.

While diffusion transports materials across membranes and within cells, osmosis transports only water across a membrane. The semipermeable membrane limits the diffusion of solutes in the water. Not surprisingly, the aquaporin proteins that facilitate water movement play a large role in osmosis, most prominently in red blood cells and the membranes of kidney tubules.

 

Mechanism of Osmosis

 

Osmosis is a special case of diffusion. Water, like other substances, moves from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration. An obvious question is what makes water move at all? Imagine a beaker with a semipermeable membrane separating the two sides or halves. On both sides of the membrane the water level is the same, but there are different concentrations of a dissolved substance, or solute, that cannot cross the membrane (otherwise the concentrations on each side would be balanced by the solute crossing the membrane). If the volume of the solution on both sides of the membrane is the same but the concentrations of solute are different, then there are different amounts of water, the solvent, on either side of the membrane. If there is more solute in one area, then there is less water; if there is less solute in one area, then there must be more water.

To illustrate this, imagine two full glasses of water. One has a single teaspoon of sugar in it, whereas the second one contains one-quarter cup of sugar. If the total volume of the solutions in both cups is the same, which cup contains more water? Because the large amount of sugar in the second cup takes up much more space than the teaspoon of sugar in the first cup, the first cup has more water in it.

image

Osmosis: In osmosis, water always moves from an area of higher water concentration to one of lower concentration. In the diagram shown, the solute cannot pass through the selectively permeable membrane, but the water can.

Returning to the beaker example, recall that it has a mixture of solutes on either side of the membrane. A principle of diffusion is that the molecules move around and will spread evenly throughout the medium if they can. However, only the material capable of passing through the membrane will diffuse through it. In this example, the solute cannot diffuse through the membrane, but the water can. Water has a concentration gradient in this system. Thus, water will diffuse down its concentration gradient, crossing the membrane to the side where it is less concentrated. This diffusion of water through the membrane—osmosis—will continue until the concentration gradient of water goes to zero or until the hydrostatic pressure of the water balances the osmotic pressure. In the beaker example, this means that the level of fluid in the side with a higher solute concentration will go up.