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Cells in New Light: Ion Concentration, Voltage, and Pressure Gradients across a Hydrogel Membrane

Paper published Aug 11, 2020

The ionic compositions of the intra- and extracellular environments are distinct from one another, with K+ being the main cation in the cytosol and Na+ being the most abundant cation outside of the cell. Specific ions can permeate into and out of the cell at different rates, bringing about uneven distribution of charges and development of negative electric potential inside the cell. Each healthy cell must maintain a specific ion concentration gradient and voltage. To account for these functions, various ionic pumps and channels located within the cell membrane have been invoked. In this work, we use a porous alginate hydrogel as a model gelatinous network representing the plant cell wall or cytoskeleton of the animal cell. We show that the gel barrier is able to maintain a stable separation of ionic solutions of different ionic strengths and chemical compositions without any pumping activity. For the Na+/K+ concentration gradient sustained across the barrier, a negative electric potential develops within the K+-rich side. The situation is reminiscent of that in the cell. Furthermore, also the advective flow of water molecules across the gel barrier is restricted, despite the gel’s large pores and the osmotic or hydrostatic pressure gradients across it. This feature has important implications for osmoregulation. We propose a mechanism in which charge separation and electric fields developing across the permselective (gel) membrane prevent ion and bulk fluid flows ordinarily driven by chemical and pressure gradients.


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