Passive Transport


Tonicity describes how an extracellular solution can change a cell's volume by affecting osmosis. A solution's tonicity often directly correlates with the solution's osmolarity. Osmolarity describes the solution's total solute concentration. 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 a membrane permeable to water, though not to the solute separates two different osmolarities, water will move from the membrane's side 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.

Hypotonic Solutions

Scientists use three terms—hypotonic, isotonic, and hypertonic—to relate the cell's osmolarity to the extracellular fluid's osmolarity that contains the cells. In a hypotonic situation, the extracellular fluid has lower osmolarity 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 solute concentration, or a lower osmolarity, than the cell cytoplasm.) It also means that the extracellular fluid has a higher water concentration in the solution than does the cell. In this situation, water will follow its concentration gradient and enter the cell.

Hypertonic Solutions

As for a hypertonic solution, the prefix hyper- refers to the extracellular fluid having a higher osmolarity than the cell’s cytoplasm; therefore, the fluid contains less water than the cell does. Because the cell has a relatively higher water concentration, water will leave the cell.

Isotonic Solutions

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

Art Connection

The left part of this illustration shows shriveled red blood cells bathed in a hypertonic solution. The middle part shows healthy red blood cells bathed in an isotonic solution, and the right part shows bloated red blood cells bathed in a hypotonic solution.
Osmotic pressure changes red blood cells' shape in hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic solutions. (credit: Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

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

Link to Learning

For a video illustrating the diffusion process in solutions, visit this site.