A mechanistic view of the non-ideal osmotic and motional behavior of intracellular water

I. L. Cameron, K. M. Kanal, C. R. Keener, G. D. Fullerton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


It is commonly assumed that essentially all of the water in cells has the same ideal motional and colligative properties as does water in bulk liquid state. This assumption is used in studies of volume regulation, transmembrane movement of solutes and electrical potentials, solute and solution motion, solute solubility and other phenomena. To get at the extent and the source of non-ideally behaved water (an operational term dependent on the measurement method), we studied the motional and colligative properties of water in cells, in solutions of amino acids and glycine peptides whose surface characteristics are known, and in solution of bovine serum albumin, hemoglobin and some synthetic polypeptides. Solutions of individual amino acids with progressively larger hydrophobic side chains showed one perturbed water molecule retructured slowed in motion) per nine square angstroms of hydrophobic surface area. Water molecules adjacent to hydrophobic surfaces form pentagonal structural arrays, as shown by X-ray diffraction studies, that are reported to be disrupted by heat, electric field, hydrostatic pressure and phosphorylation state. Hydrophilic amino acids demonstrated water destructuring (increased motion) that was attributed to dielectric realignment of dipolar water molecules in the electric field between charge groups. In solutions of proteins, several methods indicate the equivalent of 2-8 layers of structured water molecules extending beyond the protein surface, and we have recently demonstrated that induced protein conformational change modifies the extent of non-ideally behaved water. Water self-diffusion rate as measured in three different cell types was about half that of bulk water, indicating that most of the water in these cells was slower in motion than bulk water. In different cell types the extent of osmotically perturbed water ranged from less than half to almost all of the intracellular water. The assumption that essentially all intracellular water has ideal osmotic and motional behavior is not supported by the experimental findings. The non-ideality of cell water is an operational term. Therefore, the amount of non-ideally behaving water is dependent on the characteristics of water targeted, i.e. the measurement method, and a large fraction of it is explainable in mechanistic terms at a molecular level based on solute-solvent interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)99-113
Number of pages15
JournalCell Biology International
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1997
Externally publishedYes


  • Amino acids
  • Osmosis
  • Osmotically unresponsive water
  • Protein conformation
  • Quasi-elastic neutron scattering
  • Water structuring and destructuring
  • Water-self diffusion coefficient
  • Water-solute interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cell Biology


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