osmosis (ŏzmō´sĬs), transfer of a liquid solvent through a semipermeable membrane that does not allow dissolved solids (solutes) to pass. Osmosis refers only to transfer of solvent; transfer of solute is called dialysis. In either case the direction of transfer is from the area of higher concentration of the material transferred to the area of lower concentration. This spontaneous migration of a material from a region of higher concentration to a region of lower concentration is called diffusion.
Principles of Osmosis
Osmosis will occur if a vessel is separated into two compartments by a semipermeable membrane, both compartments are filled to the same level with a solvent, and solute is added to one side. The level of the liquid on the side containing the solute will rise as the solvent flows from the side of its higher concentration to the side of lower concentration. If an external pressure is exerted on the side containing the solute, the transfer of solvent can be stopped and even reversed (reverse osmosis). Two solutions separated by a semipermeable membrane are said to be isotonic if no osmosis occurs. If osmosis occurs, transfer of solvent is from the hypotonic solution to the hypertonic solution, which has the higher osmotic pressure.
The minimum pressure necessary to stop solvent transfer is called the osmotic pressure. Since the osmotic pressure is related to the concentration of solute particles, there is a mathematical relationship between osmotic pressure, freezing-point depression, and boiling-point elevation. Properties such as osmotic pressure, freezing point, and boiling point, which depend on the number of particles present rather than on their size or chemical nature, are called colligative properties. For dilute solutions the mathematical relationship between the osmotic pressure, temperature, and concentration of solute is much like the relation between pressure, temperature, and volume in an ideal gas (see gas laws). A number of theories explaining osmotic pressure by analogy to gases have been devised, but most have been discarded in favor of thermodynamic interpretations using such concepts as the entropy of dilution.
Biological Importance of Osmosis
Osmosis and dialysis are of prime importance in living organisms, where they influence the distribution of nutrients and the release of metabolic waste products. Living cells of both plants and animals are enclosed by a semipermeable membrane called the cell membrane, which regulates the flow of liquids and of dissolved solids and gases into and out of the cell. The membrane forms a selective barrier between the cell and its environment; not all substances can pass through the membrane with equal facility. Without this selectivity, the substances necessary to the life of the cell would diffuse uniformly into the cell's surroundings, and toxic materials from the surroundings would enter the cell.
If blood cells (or other cells) are placed in contact with an isotonic solution, they will neither shrink nor swell. If the solution is hypertonic, the cells will lose water and shrink (plasmolyze). If the solution is hypotonic (or if pure solvent is used) the cells will swell; the osmotic pressure that is developed may even be great enough to rupture the cell membrane. Saltwater from the ocean is hypertonic to the cells of the human body; the drinking of ocean water dehydrates body tissues instead of quenching thirst.
In plants osmosis is at least partially responsible for the absorption of soil water by root hairs and for the elevation of the liquid to the leaves of the plant. However, plants wilt when watered with saltwater or treated with too much fertilizer, since the soil around their roots then becomes hypertonic.