Diffusion is a passive process of transport. A single substance moves from a high concentration to a low concentration area until the concentration is equal across a space. You are familiar with diffusion of substances through the air. For example, think about someone opening a bottle of ammonia in a room filled with people. The ammonia gas is at its highest concentration in the bottle. Its lowest concentration is at the room's edges. The ammonia vapor will diffuse, or spread away, from the bottle, and gradually, increasingly more people will smell the ammonia as it spreads. Materials move within the cell’s cytosol by diffusion, and certain materials move through the plasma membrane by diffusion (Figure). Diffusion expends no energy. On the contrary, concentration gradients are a form of potential energy, which dissipates as the gradient is eliminated.
Each separate substance in a medium, such as the extracellular fluid, has its own concentration gradient, independent of other materials' concentration gradients. In addition, each substance will diffuse according to that gradient. Within a system, there will be different diffusion rates of various substances in the medium.
Factors That Affect Diffusion
Molecules move constantly in a random manner, at a rate that depends on their mass, their environment, and the amount of thermal energy they possess, which in turn is a function of temperature. This movement accounts for molecule diffusion through whatever medium in which they are localized. A substance moves into any space available to it until it evenly distributes itself throughout. After a substance has diffused completely through a space, removing its concentration gradient, molecules will still move around in the space, but there will be no net movement of the number of molecules from one area to another. We call this lack of a concentration gradient in which the substance has no net movement dynamic equilibrium. While diffusion will go forward in the presence of a substance's concentration gradient, several factors affect the diffusion rate.
- Extent of the concentration gradient: The greater the difference in concentration, the more rapid the diffusion. The closer the distribution of the material gets to equilibrium, the slower the diffusion rate.
- Mass of the molecules diffusing: Heavier molecules move more slowly; therefore, they diffuse more slowly. The reverse is true for lighter molecules.
- Temperature: Higher temperatures increase the energy and therefore the molecules' movement, increasing the diffusion rate. Lower temperatures decrease the molecules' energy, thus decreasing the diffusion rate.
- Solvent density: As the density of a solvent increases, the diffusion rate decreases. The molecules slow down because they have a more difficult time passing through the denser medium. If the medium is less dense, diffusion increases. Because cells primarily use diffusion to move materials within the cytoplasm, any increase in the cytoplasm’s density will inhibit the movement of the materials. An example of this is a person experiencing dehydration. As the body’s cells lose water, the diffusion rate decreases in the cytoplasm, and the cells’ functions deteriorate. Neurons tend to be very sensitive to this effect. Dehydration frequently leads to unconsciousness and possibly coma because of the decrease in diffusion rate within the cells.
- Solubility: As we discussed earlier, nonpolar or lipid-soluble materials pass through plasma membranes more easily than polar materials, allowing a faster diffusion rate.
- Surface area and plasma membrane thickness: Increased surface area increases the diffusion rate; whereas, a thicker membrane reduces it.
- Distance travelled: The greater the distance that a substance must travel, the slower the diffusion rate. This places an upper limitation on cell size. A large, spherical cell will die because nutrients or waste cannot reach or leave the cell's center, respectively. Therefore, cells must either be small in size, as in the case of many prokaryotes, or be flattened, as with many single-celled eukaryotes.
A variation of diffusion is the process of filtration. In filtration, material moves according to its concentration gradient through a membrane. Sometimes pressure enhances the diffusion rate, causing the substances to filter more rapidly. This occurs in the kidney, where blood pressure forces large amounts of water and accompanying dissolved substances, or solutes, out of the blood and into the renal tubules. The diffusion rate in this instance is almost totally dependent on pressure. One of the effects of high blood pressure is the appearance of protein in the urine, which abnormally high pressure "squeezes through".