Cells are about 75 percent water and blood plasma is about 95 percent water. Why then, does the water not flow from blood plasma to cells? The force of water also known as hydrostatic pressure maintains the volumes of water between fluid compartments against the force of all dissolved substances. The concentration is the amount of particles in a set volume of water. (Recall that individual solutes can differ in concentration between the intracellular and extracellular fluids, but the total concentration of all dissolved substances is equal.)
The force driving the water movement through the selectively permeable membrane is the higher solute concentration on the one side. Solutes at different concentrations on either side of a selectively permeable membrane exert a force, called osmotic pressure. The higher concentration of solutes on one side compared to the other of the U-tube exerts osmotic pressure, pulling the water to a higher volume on the side of the U-tube containing more dissolved particles. When the osmotic pressure is equal to the pressure of the water on the selectively permeable membrane, net water movement stops (though it still diffuses back and forth at an equal rate).
One equation exemplifying equal concentrations but different volumes is the following
5 grams of glucose in 1 liter = 10 grams of glucose in 2 liters (5g/L = 5g/L)
The differences in concentrations of particular substances provide concentration gradients that cells can use to perform work. A concentration gradient is a form of potential energy, like water above a dam. When water falls through a dam the potential energy is changed to moving energy (kinetic), that in turn is captured by turbines. Similarly, when an electrolyte at higher concentration in the extracellular fluid is transported into a cell, the potential energy is harnessed and used to perform work.
Cells are constantly transporting nutrients in and wastes out. How is the concentration of solutes maintained if they are in a state of flux? This is where electrolytes come into play. The cell (or more specifically the numerous sodium-potassium pumps in its membrane) continuously pumps sodium ions out to establish a chemical gradient. The transport protein, called the glucose symporter, uses the sodium gradient to power glucose movement into the cell. Sodium and glucose both move into the cell. Water passively follows the sodium. To restore balance, the sodium-potassium pump transfers sodium back to the extracellular fluid and water follows. Every cycle of the sodium-potassium pump involves the movement of three sodium ions out of a cell, in exchange for two potassium ions into a cell. To maintain charge neutrality on the outside of cells every sodium cation is followed by a chloride anion. Every cycle of the pump costs one molecule of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The constant work of the sodium-potassium pump maintains the solute equilibrium and consequently, water distribution between intracellular and extracellular fluids.
The unequal movement of the positively charged sodium and potassium ions makes intracellular fluid more negatively charged than the extracellular fluid. This charge gradient is another source of energy that a cell uses to perform work. You will soon learn that this charge gradient and the sodium-potassium pump are also essential for nerve conduction and muscle contraction. The many functions of the sodium-potassium pump in the body account for approximately a quarter of total resting energy expenditure.
Figure 3.8 The Sodium-Potassium Pump