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T o p ic 5

Transport Across Membranes

By the end of this topic, you should be able to: 1. Relate simple diffusion and osmosis; 2. Differentiate hemolysis, crenation and plasmolysis in red blood cells; 3. Discuss distribution coefficient and its relationship between lipid solubility and membrane permeability; 4. Identify the varying capacity of electrolytes and non-electrolytes in permeating cells; 5. Discover the Gibbs-Donnan effect of molecules; 6. Describe the features exhibited by facilitated diffusion; 7. Explain the mechanisms of active transport including sodiumpotassium pump; and 8. Summarise bulk transport of materials into and out of a cell (endocytosis and exocytosis).


We use various kind of transportations to get from one place to another. For example, you can bus to go from your house to Chow Kit Road in Kuala Lumpur, just like the cartoon. So how about the transportation inside your body? Well, let us find out on the next page.




First, bear in your mind that changes in membrane structure can affect water balance and ion flux, and hence every process occurring within a cell. Specific deficiencies or alterations of certain membrane components can lead to a variety of diseases. Thus, a normal membrane is essential for normal cellular functions. As the cell membrane is relatively impermeable, the cell needs to adjust to the constantly changing external environment by devising various transport mechanisms. You will learn more on this as you will look at membrane transportation mechanisms - the osmosis and simple diffusion. You will also learn associated topics such as hemolysis, crenation and plasmolysis in red blood cells; the diffusion rate of solute that are represented by the Ficks equation; the distribution coefficient; the permeabilities of electrolytes and non-electrolytes; as well as the Gibbs-Donnan effect. Facilitated diffusion, active transport, cotransport and bulk transport will also be discussed in this topic. Let us start our engine now!



Let us start this lesson by learning simple diffusion. Do you know what is the meaning of diffusion and how does it happen? Diffusion is the movement of solute molecules from a region of high concentration to one of lower concentration separated by a membrane. This process is shown in Figure 5.1 where you can see a simple diffusion through the phospholipids bilayer.




Figure 5.1: Simple diffusion through the phospholipids bilayer

Based on Figure 5.1, you can see that gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide and lipid-soluble molecules can diffuse directly through the phospholipids. This shows you a simple diffusion that happens in our body.



You have looked at simple diffusion on gases just now. How about water? Well, water molecules also move in simple diffusion by continuously moving into and out of cells through the plasma membrane. Note that such movements are not detectable as changes in cell size or shape, because the flux in each direction is the same. When the concentration of solutes inside and outside the cell differ, the water flux in one direction may be greater than the other direction and the cell then swells or shrinks. Water moves from a region of low solute concentration to a region of higher solute concentration in order to establish a concentration of equilibrium. The movement of water molecules in response to such a solute concentration gradient is known as osmosis. Can you imagine this event? Well, look at Figure 5.2 which shows how osmosis happens.




Figure 5.2: Osmosis

Based on Figure 5.2, we can see that membrane pores allow free water molecules to pass through, but not to sugar molecules which are too large. Bound water molecules are attracted to the sugars by hydrogen bonds, which are also kept from passing through the pore. A membrane is differentially permeable to free water molecules but not to sugar (represented by the hexagon) or water molecules held to the sugars by hydrogen bonds. What happened if a bag made of such a membrane is filled with a sugar solution and suspended in pure water? If a bag made of such a membrane is filled with a sugar solution and suspended in pure water, free water molecules will diffuse down their concentration gradient from the high concentration of water outside the bag to the lower concentration of water inside the bag. The bag swells up as water enters. If the bag is weak enough, the increasing water pressure will cause it to burst. You have learnt that molecules can also cross the bilayer membrane passively down electrochemical gradients by simple diffusion or by facilitated diffusion. Can you think of any example? Well, as an example, some solutes such as gases can enter the cell by diffusing down an electrochemical gradient across the membrane without needing any metabolic energy. Cellular phenomena associated with osmosis and simple diffusion across plasma membrane is easily demonstrated by the red blood cells. Normal plasma (0.15 M NaCl) in which the red blood cells are suspended is isotonic to the cytoplasm of the red blood cells (0.15 M KCl) because both have the same concentrations of impermeable salts. However, if the suspending plasma is diluted with water, its salt concentration will decrease and becomes hypotonic to the red blood cells. Water then move by osmosis into the red blood cells causing the latter to swell.




Describe the types of membrane transport that follows the concentration gradient from high to low and those against.


Hemolysis, Crenation and Plasmolysis

Do you know that the amount of water entering the cells depends on the hypotonicity of the suspending medium? Well, you can check this out by looking at Figure 5.3.

Figure 5.3: The effects of osmosis

As you can see in Figure 5.3, red blood cells are normally suspended in the fluid environment of the blood and cannot regulate water flow across their plasma membranes. In Figure 5.3(a), if red blood cells are immersed or covered in an isotonic salt solution, which has the same concentration of dissolved substances as the blood cells do, there is no net movement of water across the plasma membrane. The red blood cells keep their characteristic dimpled disk shape. Meanwhile in Figure 5.3(b), a hypertonic solution, with too much salt, causes water to leave the cells, shrivelling them up. Lastly, in Figure 5.3(c) which is a hypotonic solution, with less salt than in the cells had caused water to enter, and the cells swell.




If red blood cells are suspended in an isotonic salt solution, i.e. the salt concentration is the same as the contents of the cells, there is no net movement of water across the cell membranes and the cells maintain their biconcave shape. Solutions that contain higher concentrations of impermeable solute than are found inside cells are said to be hypertonic. When red blood cells are placed in a hypertonic solution, water move from the cells into the medium by osmosis until the concentration of solute inside and outside the cells are the same. The shrinkage of the cells due to this water loss is called crenation and other animal cells also show the same behaviour. What happens if the suspending medium contains half its original salt concentration or being hypotonic in relation to the cell contents? Well, if the suspending medium contains half its original salt concentration or being hypotonic in relation to the cell contents, water will then enter the red blood cells until they swell to twice their original size. This will reduce their impermeable salt concentration to half the original value, thus bringing the internal and external salt concentration into equilibrium. The increase in swelling of the cells is proportionate to the increase in hypotonicity of the external solution. However, this relationship is not indefinite as eventually the cell membrane will rupture and release its contents into the surrounding medium. This process is called osmotic lysis and red blood cells will lyse if suspended in a very dilute salt solution or in distilled water. For red blood cells, the process is named hemolysis since hemoglobin from the cells is released into the surrounding medium. Other animal cells show similar behaviour. How about plant cells? Plant cells, however, do not lyse even when placed in a very dilute medium or distilled later because cell swelling is limited by the presence of inflexible cellulose cell walls. Plants cells will swell when placed in hypotonic solutions as water enters the cytoplasmic vacuoles through osmosis and forced the cell cytoplasm to the edges of the cellulose cell walls. The cells under this condition is said to be turgid. Look at Figure 5.4 which shows the behaviour of plant cells in hypotonic solutions as described above.




Figure 5.4: Behaviour of plant cells in hypotonic solutions

When plant cells are placed in a hypertonic medium, they will undergo plasmolysis, whereby water passes from the cytoplasmic vacuoles into the space between the cell wall and the plasma membrane. Let us look at the following Figure 5.5 which shows you plasmolysis of plant cells in hypertonic solutions.