Plasmolysis is the process in which cells lose water in a hypertonic solution. The reverse process, cytolysis, can occur if the cell is in a hypotonic solution resulting in a lower external osmotic pressure and a net flow of water into the cell. Through observation of plasmolysis and deplasmolysis it is possible to determine the tonicity of the cell's environment as well as the rate solute molecules cross the cellular membrane.
A plant cell in hypotonic solution will absorb water by endosmosis, so that the increased volume of water in the cell will increase pressure, making the protoplasm push against the cell wall, a condition known as turgor. Turgor makes plant cells push against each other in the same way and is the main line method of support in non-woody plant tissue. Plant cell walls resist further water entry after a certain point, known as full turgor, which stops plant cells from bursting as animal cells do in the same conditions. This is also the reason that plants stand upright. Without the stiffness of the plant cells the plant would fall under its own weight. Turgor pressure allows plants to hold their posture/form, and plants without turgor pressure (known as flaccid) wilt.
If a plant cell is placed in a hypertonic solution, the plant cell loses water and hence turgor pressure by plasmolysis: pressure decreases to the point where the protoplasm of the cell peels away from the cell wall, leaving gaps between the cell wall and the membrane and making the plant cell flaccid. Eventually leading to cytorrhysis – the complete collapse of the cell wall. Plants with cells in this condition wilt. After plasmolysis the gap between the cell wall and the cell membrane in a plant cell is filled with hypertonic solution. This is because as the solution surrounding the cell is hypertonic, exosmosis takes place and the space between the cell wall and cytoplasm is filled with solutes, as most of the water drains away and hence the concentration inside the cell becomes more and becomes hypertonic. There are some mechanisms in plants to prevent excess water loss in the same way as excess water gain, but plasmolysis can be reversed if the cell is placed in a weaker solution (hypotonic solution). Stomata help keep water in the plant so it does not dry out. Wax also keeps water in the plant. The equivalent process in animal cells is called crenation.
The liquid content of the cell leaks out due to exosmosis. The cell collapse and cell membrane pulls away from the cell wall (in plants). Most animal cells consist of only a phospholipid bilayer and not a cell wall, therefore shrinking up under such conditions.
Plasmolysis only occurs in extreme conditions and rarely happens in nature. It is induced in the laboratory by immersing cells in strong saline or sugar (sucrose) solutions to cause exosmosis, often using Elodea plants or onion epidermal cells, which have colored cell sap so that the process is clearly visible. Methylene blue can be used to stain plant cells
Plasmolysis can be of two types. It can be either concave plasmolysis or convex plasmolysis. Convex plasmolysis is always irreversible while concave plasmolysis is usually reversible.
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