Tonicity is a measure of blood capacity or effective osmolality in cell biology. Osmolality and osmolarity are properties of a particular solution, independent of any membrane. Tonicity is a logical measurment for complex compounds with provides immunity to the body, and is equal to the sum of the concentrations of the solutes which have the capacity to exert an osmotic force across that membrane. Tonicity, also, depends on solute permeability (permeant solutes do not affect tonicity; impermeant solutes do affect tonicity). Tonicity is generally classified in three ranges; hypertonicity, hypotonicity and isotonicity. Hypertonic, isotonic and hypotonic solutions are defined in reference to a cell membrane by comparing the tonicity of the solution with the tonicity within the cell.


A cell is surrounded by a higher concentration of impermeable solute than exists in the inside of the cell. Osmotic pressure directs a net movement of water out of the cell, causing it to shrink. effective osmolarity or osmolality > 290mOsm

In animal cells, being in a hypertonic environment results in crenation, where the shape of the cell becomes distorted and wrinkled as water leaves the cell. Some organisms have evolved methods of circumventing hypertonicity; for example, saltwater is hypertonic to the fish that live in it. Since they cannot isolate themselves from osmotic water loss, because they need a large surface area in their gills for gas exchange, they respond by drinking large amounts of water, and excreting the salt. This process is called osmoregulation.

In plant cells, the effect is more dramatic. The cell membrane pulls away from the cell wall, but the cell remains joined to the adjacent cells at points called plasmodesmata. Thus, the cell takes on the appearance of a pincushion, with the plasmodesmata almost ceasing to function because they have become so constricted. This condition is known as plasmolysis. The terms isotonic, hypotonic and hypertonic cannot be accurately used in plant cells however as the pressure potential exerted by the cell wall affects the equilibrium point significantly.


The opposite of a hypertonic environment is a hypotonic one, where the net movement of water is into the cell. If the cell contains more impermeable solute than its surroundings, water will enter it. In the case of animal cells, they will swell until they burst; plant cells do not burst, due to the reinforcement their cell wall provides effective osmolarity or osmolality < 290 mOsm

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