Passive Transport

Passive transport is a way that small molecules or ions move across the cell membrane without input of energy by the cell. The three main kinds of passive transport are diffusion, osmosis, and facilitated diffusion.


Diffusion is the movement of molecules from an area of high concentration of the molecules to an area with a lower concentration. The difference in the concentrations of the molecules in the two areas is called the concentration gradient. Diffusion will continue until this gradient has been eliminated. Since diffusion moves materials from an area of higher concentration to the lower, it is described as moving solutes "down the concentration gradient." The end result of diffusion is an equal concentration, or equilibrium, of molecules on both sides of the membrane.

If a molecule can pass freely through a cell membrane, it will cross the membrane by diffusion (Figurebelow).

Molecules move from an area of high concentration to an area of lower concentration until an equilibrium is met. The molecules continue to cross the membrane at equilibrium, but at equal rates in both directions.


Imagine you have a cup that has 100ml water, and you add 15g of table sugar to the water. The sugar dissolves and the mixture that is now in the cup is made up of a solute (the sugar), that is dissolved in the solvent (the water). The mixture of a solute in a solvent is called a solution.

Imagine now that you have a second cup with 100ml of water, and you add 45 grams of table sugar to the water. Just like the first cup, the sugar is the solute, and the water is the solvent. But now you have two mixtures of different solute concentrations. In comparing two solutions of unequal solute concentration, the solution with the higher solute concentration is hypertonic, and the solution with the lower concentration is hypotonic. Solutions of equal solute concentration are isotonic. The first sugar solution is hypotonic to the second solution. The second sugar solution is hypertonic to the first.

You now add the two solutions to a beaker that has been divided by a selectively permeable membrane. The pores in the membrane are too small for the sugar molecules to pass through, but are big enough for the water molecules to pass through. The hypertonic solution is on one side of the membrane and the hypotonic solution on the other. The hypertonic solution has a lower water concentration than the hypotonic solution, so a concentration gradient of water now exists across the membrane. Water molecules will move from the side of higher water concentration to the side of lower concentration until both solutions are isotonic.

Osmosis is the diffusion of water molecules across a selectively permeable membrane from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. Water moves into and out of cells by osmosis. If a cell is in a hypertonic solution, the solution has a lower water concentration than the cell cytosol does, and water moves out of the cell until both solutions are isotonic. Cells placed in a hypotonic solution will take in water across their membrane until both the external solution and the cytosol are isotonic.

A cell that does not have a rigid cell wall (such as a red blood cell), will swell and lyse (burst) when placed in a hypotonic solution. Cells with a cell wall will swell when placed in a hypotonic solution, but once the cell is turgid (firm), the tough cell wall prevents any more water from entering the cell. When placed in a hypertonic solution, a cell without a cell wall will lose water to the environment, shrivel, and probably die. In a hypertonic solution, a cell with a cell wall will lose water too. The plasma membrane pulls away from the cell wall as it shrivels. The cell becomes plasmolyzed. Animal cells tend to do best in an isotonic environment, plant cells tend to do best in a hypotonic environment. This is demonstrated in Figure below.

Unless an animal cell (such as the red blood cell in the top panel) has an adaptation that allows it to alter the osmotic uptake of water, it will lose too much water and shrivel up in a hypertonic environment. If placed in a hypotonic solution, water molecules will enter the cell causing it to swell and burst. Plant cells (bottom panel) become plasmolyzed in a hypertonic solution, but tend to do best in a hypotonic environment. Water is stored in the central vacuole of the plant cell.

When water moves into a cell by osmosis, osmotic pressure may build up inside the cell. If a cell has a cell wall, the wall helps maintain the cell’s water balance. Osmotic pressure is the main cause of support in many plants. When a plant cell is in a hypotonic environment, the osmotic entry of water raises the turgor pressure exerted against the cell wall until the pressure prevents more water from coming into the cell. At this point the plant cell is turgid. The effects of osmotic pressures on plant cells are shown in Figure below.

The central vacuoles of the plant cells in the left image are full of water, so the cells are turgid. The plant cells in the right image have been exposed to a hypertonic solution; water has left the central vacuole and the cells have become plasmolysed.

Osmosis can be seen very effectively when potato slices are added to a high concentration of salt solution (hypertonic). The water from inside the potato moves out of the potato cells to the salt solution, which causes the potato cells to lose turgor pressure. The more concentrated the salt solution, the greater the difference in the size and weight of the potato slice after plasmolysis.

The action of osmosis can be very harmful to organisms, especially ones without cell walls. For example, if a saltwater fish (whose cells are isotonic with seawater), is placed in fresh water, its cells will take on excess water, lyse, and the fish will die. Another example of a harmful osmotic effect is the use of table salt to kill slugs and snails.

Controlling Osmosis

Organisms that live in a hypotonic environment such as freshwater, need a way to prevent their cells from taking in too much water by osmosis. A contractile vacuole is a type of vacuole that removes excess water from a cell. Freshwater protists, such as the paramecia shown in Figure below, have a contractile vacuole. The vacuole is surrounded by several canals, which absorb water by osmosis from the cytoplasm. After the canals fill with water, the water is pumped into the vacuole. When the vacuole is full, it pushes the water out of the cell through a pore. Other protists, such as members of the genus Amoeba, have contractile vacuoles that move to the surface of the cell when full and release the water into the environment.

Jasper Nance

The contractile vacuole is the star-like structure within the paramecia (at center-right)

Facilitated Diffusion

Facilitated diffusion is the diffusion of solutes through transport proteins in the plasma membrane. Facilitated diffusion is a type of passive transport. Even though facilitated diffusion involves transport proteins, it is still passive transport because the solute is moving down the concentration gradient.

As was mentioned earlier, small nonpolar molecules can easily diffuse across the cell membrane. However, due to the hydrophobic nature of the lipids that make up cell membranes, polar molecules (such as water) and ions cannot do so. Instead, they diffuse across the membrane through transport proteins. A transport protein completely spans the membrane, and allows certain molecules or ions to diffuse across the membrane. Channel proteins, gated channel proteins, and carrier proteins are three types of transport proteins that are involved in facilitated diffusion.

A channel protein, a type of transport protein, acts like a pore in the membrane that lets water molecules or small ions through quickly. Water channel proteins allow water to diffuse across the membrane at a very fast rate. Ion channel proteins allow ions to diffuse across the membrane.

A gated channel protein is a transport protein that opens a "gate," allowing a molecule to pass through the membrane. Gated channels have a binding site that is specific for a given molecule or ion. A stimulus causes the "gate" to open or shut. The stimulus may be chemical or electrical signals, temperature, or mechanical force, depending on the type of gated channel. For example, the sodium gated channels of a nerve cell are stimulated by a chemical signal which causes them to open and allow sodium ions into the cell. Glucose molecules are too big to diffuse through the plasma membrane easily, so they are moved across the membrane through gated channels. In this way glucose diffuses very quickly across a cell membrane, which is important because many cells depend on glucose for energy.

A carrier protein is a transport protein that is specific for an ion, molecule, or group of substances. Carrier proteins "carry" the ion or molecule across the membrane by changing shape after the binding of the ion or molecule. Carrier proteins are involved in passive and active transport. A model of a channel protein and carrier proteins is shown in Figure below.

Facilitated diffusion in cell membrane. Channel proteins and carrier proteins are shown (but not a gated-channel protein). Water molecules and ions move through channel proteins. Other ions or molecules are also carried across the cell membrane by carrier proteins. The ion or molecule binds to the active site of a carrier protein. The carrier protein changes shape, and releases the ion or molecule on the other side of the membrane. The carrier protein then returns to its original shape.

Ion Channels

Ions such as sodium (Na+), potassium (K-), calcium (Ca2+), and chloride (Cl-), are important for many cell functions. Because they are polar, these ions do not diffuse through the membrane. Instead they move through ion channel proteins where they are protected from the hydrophobic interior of the membrane. Ion channels allow the formation of a concentration gradient between the extracellular fluid and the cytosol. Ion channels are very specific as they allow only certain ions through the cell membrane. Some ion channels are always open, others are "gated" and can be opened or closed. Gated ion channels can open or close in response to different types of stimuli such as electrical or chemical signals.

CK-12 Biology I book:
  • CK-12 Foundation, Barabara Akre, Jean Brainard, Niamh Gray-Wilson, Douglas Wilson

Last modified: Sunday, October 3, 2010, 8:51 PM