AskDefine | Define osmoregulation

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  1. The homeostatic regulation of osmotic pressure in the body in order to maintain a constant water content

Extensive Definition

Osmoregulation is the active regulation of the osmotic pressure of bodily fluids to maintain the homeostasis of the body's water content; that is it keeps the body's fluids from becoming too dilute or too concentrated. Osmotic pressure is a measure of the tendency of water to move into one solution from another by osmosis. The higher the osmotic pressure of a solution the more water wants to go into the solution. Pressure must be exerted on the hypertonic side of a selectively permeable membrane to prevent diffusion of water by osmosis from the side containing pure water.
Animals in all environments (aquatic and terrestrial) must maintain the right concentration of solutes and amount of water in their body fluids; this involves excretion: getting rid of metabolic wastes and other substances such as hormones which would be toxic if allowed to accumulate in the blood via organs such as the skin and the kidneys; keeping the water and dissolved solutes in balance is referred to as osmoregulation.

Regulators and conformers

Two major types of osmoregulation are osmoconformers and osmoregulators. Osmoconformers match their body osmolarity to their environment . It can either be active or passive. Most marine invertebrates are osmoconformers, although their ionic composition may be different from that of seawater.
Osmoregulators tightly regulate their body osmolarity which always stays constant and are more common in the animal kingdom. Osmoregulators actively control salt concentrations despite the salt concentrations in the environment. An example is freshwater fish. The gills actively uptake salt from the environment by the use of mitochondria rich (MR) cells. Water will diffuse into the fish so it excretes a very hypotonic urine to expel all the excess water. A marine fish has an internal osmotic concentration lower than that of the surrounding seawater so it tends to lose water and gain salt. It actively excretes salt out from the gills. Most fish are stenohaline, which means they are restricted to either salt or fresh water and can cannot survive in water with a different salt concentration than they are adapted to. However, some fish show a tremendous ability to effectively osmoregulate across a broad range of salinities; fish with this ability are known as euryhaline species.

Osmoregulation in plants

There are no specific osmoregulation organs in higher plants. Control of water intake and loss is by means of those internal and external factors which affect the rate of transpiration.
Plants share with animals the problems of obtaining water and in disposing of the surplus. Certain plants develop methods of water conservation. Xerophytes are plants in dry habitats such as deserts which are able to withstand prolonged periods of water shortage. Succulent plants such as the cactus have water stored in large parenchyma tissues. Other plants have leaf modifications to reduce water loss, such as needle-shaped leaves, sunken stomata and thick, waxy cuticles as in the pine. The sand-dune marram grass has rolled leaves with stomata on the inner surface.
Oncophyorans are also osmoregulators.

Osmoregulation in protists and animals

Amoeba make use of contractile vacuoles to collect excretory waste, such as ammonia, from the intracellular fluid by both diffusion and active transport. As osmotic action pushes water from the environment into the cytoplasm, the vacuole moves to the surface and disposes the contents into the environment.
Kidneys play a very large role in human osmoregulation, regulating the amount of water in urine waste. With the help of naturally producing hormones such as antidiuretic hormone, aldosterone, and angiotensin II, the human body can increase the permeability of the collecting ducts in the kidney to reabsorb water and prevent it from being excreted.
A major way animals have evolved to osmoregulate is by controlling the amount of water excreted through the excretory system.

Vertebrate excretory systems

Waste products of nitrogen metabolism

Ammonia is a toxic by-product of protein metabolism and is generally converted to less toxic substances after it is produced then excreted; mammals convert ammonia to urea while birds and reptiles form uric acid to be excreted with other wastes via their cloacas.

How osmoregulation is achieved in vertebrates

Four processes occur:
  • filtration - fluid portion of blood (plasma) is filtered from a nephron (functional unit of vertebrate kidney) structure known as the glomerulus into Bowman's capsule or glomerular capsule (in the kidney's cortex) and flows down the proximal convoluted tubule to a "u-turn" called the Loop of Henle (loop of the nephron) in the medulla portion of the kidney.
  • reabsorption - most of the viscous glomerular filtrate is returned to blood vessels which surround the convoluted tubules.
  • secretion - the remaining fluid becomes urine, which travels down collecting ducts to the medullary region of the kidney.
  • excretion - the urine (in mammals) is stored in the urinary bladder and exits via the urethra; in other vertebrates the urine mixes with other wastes in the cloaca before leaving the body; ( frogs also have a urinary bladder).


  • E. Solomon, L. Berg, D. Martin, Biology 6th edition. Brooks/Cole Publishing. 2002

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osmoregulation in German: Osmoregulation
osmoregulation in Spanish: Osmorregulación
osmoregulation in French: Osmorégulation
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osmoregulation in Polish: Osmoregulacja
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