23.1: What Are Osmoregulation and Excretion?
Organisms must keep bodily fluids at a constant temperature and pH while maintaining specific solute concentrations in order to support life functions. Osmoregulation is the process that balances solute and water levels.
Osmosis is the tendency of water to move from solutions with lower ion concentrations, or osmolarities, to those with higher ion concentrations. Osmosis occurs in response to differences in the molecular concentrations of solutions separated by a semipermeable membrane.
Bodily fluids, which are separated by such membranes, contain water, non-electrolytes, and electrolytes—solutes that dissolve into ions in water. Both electrolytes and non-electrolytes influence osmotic balance. However, since the more important factor to osmosis is solute number, rather than size, the contribution of electrolytes is more significant.
Unlike water, electrolytes cannot diffuse passively through membranes but rely on facilitated diffusion and active transport. In facilitated diffusion, protein-based channels move solutes across membranes. Conversely, energy is used to move ions against concentration gradients in active transport.
When animals ingest food, material that cannot be used is excreted from the body. Excretory systems in nature involve tradeoffs between conserving energy and water.
Nitrogen is among the most significant kinds of waste in the body. Excess nitrogen forms ammonia, which is toxic and must be discarded. Some animals directly excrete ammonia; others first convert it into urea or uric acid, which are less toxic. Ammonia conversion requires more energy than direct excretion, however, it conserves more water.
Transport epithelia often mediate osmoregulation and excretion. These specialized cells move solutes and are found in excretory organs throughout the animal kingdom: from insect Malpighian tubules to fish gills to vertebrate kidneys.
Typically organized in tube-shaped networks with large surface areas, transport epithelia often assist with both water balance and waste removal. For example, some seabirds have nasal glands that remove salt from the blood and excrete it from the nostrils, enabling them to consume seawater.