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This article will explain why osmosis is so important for our cells, what happens when things don’t go according to plan, and how your knowledge can help you better understand both yourself and the world around you.
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Animals and Osmosis
The body of an animal must retain water; that’s why it’s generally difficult to dehydrate an animal by removing its water. In humans, even in desert areas where they lose a lot of water through perspiration, there are still mechanisms in place to bring water back into the body: sweating and vasodilation (which allows more blood to flow to the skin, flushing out sweat). No matter how much you drink, your cells will always have water — that’s because those processes ensure you have at least as much as you lose.
Osmosis in Plants
Remember, plants are going to want to maintain a relative balance of solutes inside and outside of their cell walls. If a plant takes in more water than it needs, it will lose essential nutrients through its roots. When you see a plant wilting because of too much or too little water, it’s actually due to osmotic pressure differences between its interior and exterior environment. The cells within its leaves crave minerals such as magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium, but they can't get them unless they let some of their water out into the soil. Then when roots take up that water from the soil, it can draw those nutrients back in as well.
Humans and Osmosis
It's easy to think of osmosis as a simple concept, but in reality, it has very practical and significant impacts on everything from human health to drinking water safety. As an example, on a more basic level, you'll often hear someone talking about having a salty taste or a sweet tooth. Your taste buds are only able to perceive five flavors (umami, sweet, bitter, sour, and salty), but that's what causes them to think something tastes one way or another. In both cases (salty and sweet), it's due in part to small particles that cross your palate via osmosis—the process through which water (or another solvent) moves from areas of low solute concentration into areas of high solute concentration.
How does osmosis affect the body's health?
Osmosis occurs in all living things, including humans. It's responsible for allowing nutrients and water to travel through a cell's membrane; it also works to remove waste products, such as carbon dioxide. If something interferes with your body's ability to absorb or expel molecules, you could become sick—or even die. It's incredibly important that we understand how osmosis affects us and how it keeps us alive! How cool is that? We've got O-s-m-o-s-i-s!!!
How do we control osmotic pressure?
It turns out that evolution has given us built-in ways to control how much water comes into and out of our cells. Sodium is one of these key molecules that help cells maintain a healthy balance between the water inside and outside. The sodium-potassium pump (which you may recall from middle school science class) moves sodium into your cell in exchange for potassium moving out, thereby helping regulate fluid balance. As we age, however, things start to go wrong with osmotic regulation, leading to illnesses like edema or disorders such as diabetes and high blood pressure. This understanding suggests that we may be able to use drugs developed today based on ion channel research—like diuretics or beta-blockers—to help prevent diseases associated with poor fluid regulation.
Tips to remember
Osmosis—What It Is and How It Works: Osmosis, a phenomenon that occurs naturally in many living organisms, occurs when water from one side of a semi-permeable membrane permeates through to its other side. In simple terms, osmosis describes how water will move by diffusion or active transport until there are no longer any solutes in the solution. Most organisms have developed systems to regulate osmotic flow across their cell membranes, which is called osmoregulation (Raghavan & Raghavan 2003).
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