MadSci Network: Cell Biology

Re: Is it possible for a plant cell to burst in distilled water?

Date: Mon Nov 27 14:07:22 2006
Posted By: Cynthia Galloway, Faculty Biology
Area of science: Cell Biology
ID: 1164155691.Cb

Your question is one I usually use as a bonus question for my Introductory 
Biology class.  When it comes to cells bursting, plant cells respond 
differently than animal cells.  When an animal cell is put into distilled 
water it will swell up and burst.  This is due to the fact that an animal 
cell is hypertonic to the pure water surrounding it so, water enters the 
cell until the cell bursts.  This is similar to putting too much air into 
a balloon.  It pops.  When a plant cell is put into distilled water, water 
will move in for the same reasons water enters an animal cell.  The 
solution inside the cell is hypertonic to the solution (in this case, 
distilled water) surrounding the cell.  The thing that keeps the plant 
cell from bursting is the cell wall that surrounds the plasma membrane.  
As water enters the cell the cell membrane presses against the cell wall 
creating a turgor pressure, keeping the plant upright.  The plant cell 
wall will limit how much water can enter the cell.  This keeps the cell 
from bursting.  If the plant cell wall was not there, the plant cell would 
behave just like the animal cell.  It is possible to treat plant cells 
with the enzymes, pectinase and cellulase, to degrade the cell wall making 
a plant cell protoplast.  If this cell is placed in distilled water it 
would swell up and burst.  There are many sites on the Internet that 
discuss a cells responses to a hypotonic, hypertonic or isotonic 
environment.  One such site is
online/e22/22c.htm.  There is also another post at
02/1076447262.Bt.r.html that 
deals with these same topics that might be of interest to you.

To answer the last part of your question, the only thing I can think of 
that would make a plant cell burst is that if a plant cell freezes the ice 
crystals formed inside the cell could puncture the membrane causing it to 
leak when the plant thawed.

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