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9.3: Passive Transport - Biology

9.3: Passive Transport - Biology


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Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain why and how passive transport occurs
  • Understand the processes of osmosis and diffusion
  • Define tonicity and describe its relevance to passive transport

Plasma membranes must allow certain substances to enter and leave a cell, while preventing harmful material from entering and essential material from leaving. In other words, plasma membranes are selectively permeable—they allow some substances through but not others. If they were to lose this selectivity, the cell would no longer be able to sustain itself, and it would be destroyed. Some cells require larger amounts of specific substances than do other cells; they must have a way of obtaining these materials from the extracellular fluids. This may happen passively, as certain materials move back and forth, or the cell may have special mechanisms that ensure transport. Most cells expend most of their energy, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), to create and maintain an uneven distribution of ions on the opposite sides of their membranes. The structure of the plasma membrane contributes to these functions, but it also presents some problems.

The most direct forms of membrane transport are passive. Passive transport is a naturally occurring phenomenon and does not require the cell to expend energy to accomplish the movement. In passive transport, substances move from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration in a process called diffusion. A physical space in which there is a different concentration of a single substance is said to have a concentration gradient.

Selective Permeability

Plasma membranes are asymmetric, meaning that despite the mirror image formed by the phospholipids, the interior of the membrane is not identical to the exterior of the membrane. Integral proteins that act as channels or pumps work in one direction. Carbohydrates, attached to lipids or proteins, are also found on the exterior surface of the plasma membrane. These carbohydrate complexes help the cell bind substances that the cell needs in the extracellular fluid. This adds considerably to the selective nature of plasma membranes.

Recall that plasma membranes have hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions. This characteristic helps the movement of certain materials through the membrane and hinders the movement of others. Lipid-soluble material can easily slip through the hydrophobic lipid core of the membrane. Substances such as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K readily pass through the plasma membranes in the digestive tract and other tissues. Fat-soluble drugs also gain easy entry into cells and are readily transported into the body’s tissues and organs. Molecules of oxygen and carbon dioxide have no charge and pass through by simple diffusion.

Polar substances, with the exception of water, present problems for the membrane. While some polar molecules connect easily with the outside of a cell, they cannot readily pass through the lipid core of the plasma membrane. Additionally, whereas small ions could easily slip through the spaces in the mosaic of the membrane, their charge prevents them from doing so. Ions such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and chloride must have a special means of penetrating plasma membranes. Simple sugars and amino acids also need help with transport across plasma membranes.

Diffusion

Diffusion is a passive process of transport. A single substance tends to move from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration until the concentration is equal across the space. You are familiar with diffusion of substances through the air. For example, think about someone opening a bottle of perfume in a room filled with people. The perfume is at its highest concentration in the bottle and is at its lowest at the edges of the room. The perfume vapor will diffuse, or spread away, from the bottle, and gradually, more and more people will smell the perfume as it spreads. Materials move within the cell’s cytosol by diffusion, and certain materials move through the plasma membrane by diffusion (Figure 1). Diffusion expends no energy. Rather the different concentrations of materials in different areas are a form of potential energy, and diffusion is the dissipation of that potential energy as materials move down their concentration gradients, from high to low.

Each separate substance in a medium, such as the extracellular fluid, has its own concentration gradient, independent of the concentration gradients of other materials. Additionally, each substance will diffuse according to that gradient.

Several factors affect the rate of diffusion.

  • Extent of the concentration gradient: The greater the difference in concentration, the more rapid the diffusion. The closer the distribution of the material gets to equilibrium, the slower the rate of diffusion becomes.
  • Mass of the molecules diffusing: More massive molecules move more slowly, because it is more difficult for them to move between the molecules of the substance they are moving through; therefore, they diffuse more slowly.
  • Temperature: Higher temperatures increase the energy and therefore the movement of the molecules, increasing the rate of diffusion.
  • Solvent density: As the density of the solvent increases, the rate of diffusion decreases. The molecules slow down because they have a more difficult time getting through the denser medium.

Concept in Action

For an animation of the diffusion process in action, view this short video on cell membrane transport.

A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: pb.libretexts.org/fob2/?p=104

Facilitated transport

In facilitated transport, also called facilitated diffusion, material moves across the plasma membrane with the assistance of transmembrane proteins down a concentration gradient (from high to low concentration) without the expenditure of cellular energy. However, the substances that undergo facilitated transport would otherwise not diffuse easily or quickly across the plasma membrane. The solution to moving polar substances and other substances across the plasma membrane rests in the proteins that span its surface. The material being transported is first attached to protein or glycoprotein receptors on the exterior surface of the plasma membrane. This allows the material that is needed by the cell to be removed from the extracellular fluid. The substances are then passed to specific integral proteins that facilitate their passage, because they form channels or pores that allow certain substances to pass through the membrane. The integral proteins involved in facilitated transport are collectively referred to as transport proteins, and they function as either channels for the material or carriers.

Osmosis

Osmosis is the diffusion of water through a semipermeable membrane according to the concentration gradient of water across the membrane. Whereas diffusion transports material across membranes and within cells, osmosis transports only water across a membrane and the membrane limits the diffusion of solutes in the water. Osmosis is a special case of diffusion. Water, like other substances, moves from an area of higher concentration to one of lower concentration. Imagine a beaker with a semipermeable membrane, separating the two sides or halves (Figure 2). On both sides of the membrane, the water level is the same, but there are different concentrations on each side of a dissolved substance, or solute, that cannot cross the membrane. If the volume of the water is the same, but the concentrations of solute are different, then there are also different concentrations of water, the solvent, 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 getting 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. Therefore, 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. Osmosis proceeds constantly in living systems.

Concept in Action

Watch this video that illustrates diffusion in hot versus cold solutions.

A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: pb.libretexts.org/fob2/?p=104

Tonicity

Tonicity describes the amount of solute in a solution. The measure of the tonicity of a solution, or the total amount of solutes dissolved in a specific amount of solution, is called its osmolarity. Three terms—hypotonic, isotonic, and hypertonic—are used to relate the osmolarity of a cell to the osmolarity of the extracellular fluid that contains the cells. In a hypotonic solution, such as tap water, the extracellular fluid has a lower concentration of solutes than the fluid inside the cell, and water enters the cell. (In living systems, the point of reference is always the cytoplasm, so the prefix hypo– means that the extracellular fluid has a lower concentration of solutes, or a lower osmolarity, than the cell cytoplasm.) It also means that the extracellular fluid has a higher concentration of water than does the cell. In this situation, water will follow its concentration gradient and enter the cell. This may cause an animal cell to burst, or lyse.

In a hypertonic solution (the prefix hyper– refers to the extracellular fluid having a higher concentration of solutes than the cell’s cytoplasm), the fluid contains less water than the cell does, such as seawater. Because the cell has a lower concentration of solutes, the water will leave the cell. In effect, the solute is drawing the water out of the cell. This may cause an animal cell to shrivel, or crenate.

In an isotonic solution, the extracellular fluid has the same osmolarity as the cell. If the concentration of solutes of the cell matches that of the extracellular fluid, there will be no net movement of water into or out of the cell. Blood cells in hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic solutions take on characteristic appearances (Figure 3).

A doctor injects a patient with what the doctor thinks is isotonic saline solution. The patient dies, and autopsy reveals that many red blood cells have been destroyed. Do you think the solution the doctor injected was really isotonic?

Some organisms, such as plants, fungi, bacteria, and some protists, have cell walls that surround the plasma membrane and prevent cell lysis. The plasma membrane can only expand to the limit of the cell wall, so the cell will not lyse. In fact, the cytoplasm in plants is always slightly hypertonic compared to the cellular environment, and water will always enter a cell if water is available. This influx of water produces turgor pressure, which stiffens the cell walls of the plant (Figure 4). In nonwoody plants, turgor pressure supports the plant. If the plant cells become hypertonic, as occurs in drought or if a plant is not watered adequately, water will leave the cell. Plants lose turgor pressure in this condition and wilt.

Section Summary

The passive forms of transport, diffusion and osmosis, move material of small molecular weight. Substances diffuse from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration, and this process continues until the substance is evenly distributed in a system. In solutions of more than one substance, each type of molecule diffuses according to its own concentration gradient. Many factors can affect the rate of diffusion, including concentration gradient, the sizes of the particles that are diffusing, and the temperature of the system.

In living systems, diffusion of substances into and out of cells is mediated by the plasma membrane. Some materials diffuse readily through the membrane, but others are hindered, and their passage is only made possible by protein channels and carriers. The chemistry of living things occurs in aqueous solutions, and balancing the concentrations of those solutions is an ongoing problem. In living systems, diffusion of some substances would be slow or difficult without membrane proteins.

A Open Assessments element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: pb.libretexts.org/fob2/?p=104

Additional Self Check Questions

1. A doctor injects a patient with what he thinks is isotonic saline solution. Do you think the solution the doctor injected was really isotonic?

2. Why does osmosis occur?

Answers

1. No, it must have been hypotonic, as a hypotonic solution would cause water to enter the cells, thereby making them burst.

2. Water moves through a semipermeable membrane in osmosis because there is a concentration gradient across the membrane of solute and solvent. The solute cannot effectively move to balance the concentration on both sides of the membrane, so water moves to achieve this balance.


Passive transport

Passive transport is a type of membrane transport that does not require energy to move substances across cell membranes. [1] [2] Instead of using cellular energy, like active transport, [3] passive transport relies on the second law of thermodynamics to drive the movement of substances across cell membranes. [1] [2] [4] Fundamentally, substances follow Fick's first law, and move from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration because this movement increases the entropy of the overall system. [4] [5] The rate of passive transport depends on the permeability of the cell membrane, which, in turn, depends on the organization and characteristics of the membrane lipids and proteins. [ citation needed ] The four main kinds of passive transport are simple diffusion, facilitated diffusion, filtration, and/or osmosis.


Diffusion

Diffusion is a passive process. A single substance tends to move from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration until the concentration is equal across the space. For example, what happens when someone opens a bottle of perfume in a room? The perfume is at its highest concentration in the bottle and at its lowest in the room. The perfume vapor will diffuse, or spread away, from the bottle. Gradually, the vapor will spread. Materials move within the cell’s cytosol by this means of transport (Figure 1). Diffusion requires no energy use and stops when equilibrium is reached. The molecules do not stop movement but instead, maintain equilibrium.

Figure 1. Diffusion through a permeable membrane follows the concentration gradient of a substance, moving the substance from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal)

Each separate substance in a medium has its own concentration gradient, independent of the concentration gradients of other materials. Additionally, each substance will diffuse according to that gradient.

Several factors affect the rate of diffusion.

  • Concentration gradient: the greater the difference in concentration, the more rapid the diffusion as equilibrium gets close, diffusion slows
  • Molecular mass: larger molecules move more slowly, it is more difficult to move between the molecules of the substance they are moving through
  • Temperature: higher temperatures increase the energy and molecular movement, increasing the rate of diffusion

Concept in Action

For an animation of the diffusion process in action, view this short video on cell membrane transport.


Osmosis

Osmosis is a special type of diffusion — the diffusion of water molecules across a membrane. Like other molecules, water moves from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. Water moves in or out of a cell until its concentration is the same on both sides of the plasma membrane. In Figure 4.7.3, the dotted red line shows a semi-permeable membrane. In the first beaker, there is an uneven concentration of solutes on either side of the membrane, but the solute cannot cross — diffusion of the solute can’t occur. In this case, water will move to even out the concentration as has happened on the beaker on the right side. The water levels are uneven, but the process of osmosis has evened out the concentration gradient.


Tonicity

Tonicity describes the amount of solute in a solution. The measure of the tonicity of a solution, or the total amount of solutes dissolved in a specific amount of solution, is called its osmolarity. Three terms—hypotonic, isotonic, and hypertonic—are used to relate the osmolarity of a cell to the osmolarity of the extracellular fluid that contains the cells. All three of these terms are a comparison between two different solutions (for example, inside a cell compared to outside the cell).

In a hypotonic solution, such as tap water, the extracellular fluid has a lower concentration of solutes than the fluid inside the cell, and water enters the cell. (In living systems, the point of reference is always the cytoplasm, so the prefix hypo– means that the extracellular fluid has a lower concentration of solutes, or a lower osmolarity, than the cell cytoplasm.) It also means that the extracellular fluid has a higher concentration of water than does the cell. In this situation, water will follow its concentration gradient and enter the cell. This may cause an animal cell to burst, or lyse.

In a hypertonic solution (the prefix hyper– refers to the extracellular fluid having a higher concentration of solutes than the cell’s cytoplasm), the fluid contains less water than the cell does, such as seawater. Because the cell has a lower concentration of solutes, the water will leave the cell. In effect, the solute is drawing the water out of the cell. This may cause an animal cell to shrivel, or crenate.

In an isotonic solution, the extracellular fluid has the same osmolarity as the cell. If the concentration of solutes of the cell matches that of the extracellular fluid, there will be no net movement of water into or out of the cell. The cell will retain its “normal” appearance. Blood cells in hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic solutions take on characteristic appearances (Figure 4).

Remember that all three of these terms are comparisons between two solutions (i.e. inside and outside the cell). A solution can’t be hypotonic, that would be like saying that Bob is taller. That doesn’t make sense – you need to say that Bob is taller than Mike. You can say that the solution inside the cell is hypotonic to the solution outside the cell. That also means that the solution outside is hypertonic to the solution inside (just like Mike would be shorter than Bob).

Figure 4 Osmotic pressure changes the shape of red blood cells in hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic solutions. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal)

Some organisms, such as plants, fungi, bacteria, and some protists, have cell walls that surround the plasma membrane and prevent cell lysis. The plasma membrane can only expand to the limit of the cell wall, so the cell will not lyse. In fact, the cytoplasm in plants is always slightly hypertonic compared to the cellular environment, and water will always enter the plant cell if water is available. This influx of water produces turgor pressure, which stiffens the cell walls of the plant (Figure 5). In nonwoody plants, turgor pressure supports the plant. If the plant cells become hypertonic, as occurs in drought or if a plant is not watered adequately, water will leave the cell. Plants lose turgor pressure in this condition and wilt.

Figure 5 The turgor pressure within a plant cell depends on the tonicity of the solution that it is bathed in. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal)


The main function of passive transport is to control the entry and exit of substances to and from the cell by means of a selectively permeable membrane. Also, it helps the system to attain a state of equilibrium by equalizing the concentration of substances in both regions.

1) Diffusion

It is the movement of substances from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration until the concentration becomes equal in both the regions. The two common types of diffusion are:

a) Simple Diffusion: It occurs without the help of any protein molecule. Examples: The movement of water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, ethanol, and urea.

b) Facilitated Diffusion: It is a selective process that occurs with the help of a transmembrane protein molecule. Examples: Transport of glucose, sodium ions, and potassium ions.

2) Filtration

It is a selective process of separating small, soluble substances from the large, insoluble ones with the help of a membrane. Filtration can be a physical, biological, or chemical process based on where and how it occurs. Examples: Purification of blood in the kidney and formation of urine.

3) Osmosis

The spontaneous movement of water molecules from a region of low solute concentration to a region of high solute concentration through a semipermeable membrane. It is a selective process that allows only solvent molecules to pass while restricting the solutes. Examples: Taking of nutrients and minerals inside the cell and getting rid of its waste products.

Ans. Passive transport does not require energy because it is a spontaneous process that is favorable to nature.

Ans. Passive transport benefits a cell by allowing many essential substances to be transported in and out of the cell membrane without any energy expenditure. For example, oxygen diffuses from the blood directly into cells, which helps them to produce energy.

Ans. The cell membrane controls the movement of substances in and out of the cell by selectively permitting their passage, thus protecting the cell from its surroundings.


Diffusion

Diffusion is a passive process of transport. A single substance tends to move from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration until the concentration is equal across the space. You are familiar with diffusion of substances through the air. For example, think about someone opening a bottle of perfume in a room filled with people. The perfume is at its highest concentration in the bottle and is at its lowest at the edges of the room. The perfume vapor will diffuse, or spread away, from the bottle, and gradually, more and more people will smell the perfume as it spreads. Materials move within the cell’s cytosol by diffusion, and certain materials move through the plasma membrane by diffusion (Figure 1). Diffusion expends no energy. Rather the different concentrations of materials in different areas are a form of potential energy, and diffusion is the dissipation of that potential energy as materials move down their concentration gradients, from high to low.

Figure 1 Diffusion through a permeable membrane follows the concentration gradient of a substance, moving the substance from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal)

Each separate substance in a medium, such as the extracellular fluid, has its own concentration gradient, independent of the concentration gradients of other materials. Additionally, each substance will diffuse according to that gradient.

Several factors affect the rate of diffusion:

  • Extent of the concentration gradient: The greater the difference in concentration, the more rapid the diffusion. The closer the distribution of the material gets to equilibrium, the slower the rate of diffusion becomes.
  • Mass of the molecules diffusing: More massive molecules move more slowly, because it is more difficult for them to move between the molecules of the substance they are moving through therefore, they diffuse more slowly.
  • Temperature: Higher temperatures increase the energy and therefore the movement of the molecules, increasing the rate of diffusion.
  • Solvent density: As the density of the solvent increases, the rate of diffusion decreases. The molecules slow down because they have a more difficult time getting through the denser medium.

For Students & Teachers

For Teachers Only

ENDURING UNDERSTANDING
ENE-2
Cells have membranes that allow them to establish and maintain internal environments that are different from their external environments.

LEARNING OBJECTIVE
ENE-2.J
Describe the processes that allow ions and other molecules to move across membranes.

ESSENTIAL KNOWLEDGE
ENE-2.J.1
A variety of processes allow for the movement of ions and other molecules across membranes, including passive and active transport, endocytosis, and exocytosis.


Tonicity

Tonicity describes how an extracellular solution can change the volume of a cell by affecting osmosis. A solution’s tonicity often directly correlates with the osmolarity of the solution. Osmolarity describes the total solute concentration of the solution. A solution with low osmolarity has a greater number of water molecules relative to the number of solute particles a solution with high osmolarity has fewer water molecules with respect to solute particles. In a situation in which solutions of two different osmolarities are separated by a membrane permeable to water, though not to the solute, water will move from the side of the membrane with lower osmolarity (and more water) to the side with higher osmolarity (and less water). This effect makes sense if you remember that the solute cannot move across the membrane, and thus the only component in the system that can move—the water—moves along its own concentration gradient. An important distinction that concerns living systems is that osmolarity measures the number of particles (which may be molecules) in a solution. Therefore, a solution that is cloudy with cells may have a lower osmolarity than a solution that is clear, if the second solution contains more dissolved molecules than there are cells.


Osmosis

Another big example of passive transport is osmosis. This is a water specific process. Usually, cells are in an environment where there is one concentration of ions outside and one inside. Because concentrations like to be the same, the cell can pump ions in an out to stay alive. Osmosis is the movement of water across the membrane.

For a cell to survive, ion concentrations need to be the same on both sides of the cell membrane. If the cell does not pump out all of its extra ions to even out the concentrations, the water is going to move in. This can be very bad. The cell can swell up and explode. The classic example of this type of swelling happens when red blood cells are placed in water. The water rushes in to the cells, they expand and eventually rupture (POP!).


Watch the video: Μεταφορά Νευρικής Ώσης (October 2022).