Osmotic pressure

Osmosis is the diffusion of water across a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution to a more concentrated one, equalising concentrations. The pressure required to make this happen is called the osmotic pressure. If a cell were placed in a hypertonic solution (one whose solute concentration is higher), osmosis would lead to a loss of water from the cell (plasmolysis). This is the basis of using high concentrations of salt or other solutes in preserving foods against microbial attack. In the opposite situation, water would pass from a dilute (hypotonic) solution into the cell, causing it to swell and burst. The rigid cell walls of bacteria prevent them from bursting; this, together with their minute size, makes them less sensitive to variations in osmotic pressure than other types of cell. They are generally able to tolerate NaCl concentrations of between 0.5 and 3.0 per cent. Haloduric ('salt-tolerant') bacteria are able to tolerate concentrations ten times as high, but prefer lower concentrations, whereas halophilic ('salt-loving') forms are adapted to grow best in conditions of high salinity such as those that prevail in the Dead Sea in the Middle East. In order to do this without plasmolysis occurring, they must build up a higher internal solute concentration, which they do by actively concentrating potassium ions inside the cell.

Plasmolysis is the shrinkage of the plasma membrane away from the cell wall, due to osmotic loss of water from the cell.

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