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Home > Biology > Investigating cells > Cells and diffusion

Cells and diffusion


Osmosis is the special case of diffusion involving water molecules. Water molecules
move from areas of high water concentration to areas of low water concentration
through a selectively permeable membrane.

A selectively permeable membrane allows small, soluble molecules to pass through

it, but prevents large insoluble molecules from passing through.

Take a look at the following slideshow:

Greater movement of water from pure water to the dilute solution

Beaker containing pure water on one side and dilute solution on other, separated by
selectively permeable memebrane. Greater movement of water from pure water to
dilute solution
If a selectively permeable membrane separates the two solutions, water moves
through it in both directions at the same time. However, more water leaves a dilute
solution (high water concentration) and passes into a more concentrated solution
(low water concentration) than enters it. Although the water appears to move across
the membrane in one direction, it is in fact moving in both directions but more one
way than the other. When the concentration of water is the same on both sides of
the membrane, the movement of water will be the same in both directions.

Pure water has the highest water concentration possible. As more salt or sugar is
dissolved the water concentration decreases. A concentration gradient is where
there is a high water concentration in one area and a lower water concentration in

Using these words and information we can now summarise osmosis with its definition.

Osmosis is the movement of water molecules through a selectively permeable membrane

from higher water concentration to a lower water concentration - or - down a
concentration gradient.

Animal cells are surrounded only by the membrane and may swell up and burst if too
much water enters by osmosis. Plant cells have a strong cell wall outside the
membrane and this wall prevents them from swelling up too much. They become stiff
and hard like a well inflated football. The cell is turgid. Animal cells just
shrivel up when they lose water by osmosis. Plant cells shrink a little, but the
tough cell wall keeps its shape when the membrane inside shrinks away from it so
the cell becomes limp and floppy like a football with no air in it. The cell is

To gain a better understanding of osmosis, heres a new way of looking at it, with
the help of scientist and rapper Jon Chase, some volunteers, and a large net

Video: Osmosis

To find out more about both diffusion and osmosis, listen to the Naked Scientists
explain how things get in and out of cells.

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