Plasmolysis: Definition & Experiments

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  • 0:00 Plants & Water
  • 0:35 Plant Environments
  • 1:56 At-Home Experiments
  • 3:05 Plasmolysis Applications
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ryan Hultzman
In this lesson, we'll define what plasmolysis is and explain how it happens. We'll also go over some experiments and some important, real-life applications of the process.

Plants & Water

Picture a neglected house plant. It probably looks okay for the first week or two depending on the type of plant. But then it starts to slump over and wilt. The same thing happens to vegetables in your fridge. They start to get a little soft and lose their crunch after a few days. Why does this happen? The answer is water. Water is essential for plant growth and without it, plants fall over and eventually die. Let's look at how the environment of the plant affects how it looks.

Plant Environments

We can describe a plant's exterior environment in three ways: hypertonic, hypotonic, and isotonic. A hypertonic solution has a lesser concentration of water outside the cell compared to inside the cell. Everything in the entire world wants to flow from high concentration to a low concentration, so water rushes out of the plant cells, causing it to wilt. This process is called plasmolysis.

A hypertonic solution can be created by mixing salt, or any other type of solute, with water. Cells generally have a concentration of about 70% water, so creating a solution that is less than 70% water, or greater than 30% salt, will result in a hypertonic environment. The more salt, the greater the effect of plasmolysis.

We will only focus on hypertonic environments in this lesson, but just for reference, a hypotonic solution is the opposite of a hypertonic one. A greater concentration of water outside rather than inside a cell causes water to rush into the cell, making it swell, or become turgid. An isotonic solution is one where a plant and its environment have the same concentration of water, so water moves in and out at the same rate, causing no change in the plant.

At-Home Experiments

Let's take a look at how plasmolysis works in real life. If you take a sliver of a plant leaf and soak it in a solution made with a lot of salt and water, you'll create a hypertonic solution for the plant. Using just your eyes you can probably see the onion sliver start to shrivel a bit. However, if you take a very thin piece of onion and put it on a glass slide with the salt water under a microscope, you can watch the cells start to shrivel.

A plant cell's main compartment is the cytoplasm, where all the fluid is. It is surrounded by the cell membrane. Surrounding the cell membrane is a further layer of protection, called the cell wall. In plasmolysis, all the membranes start to peel away from the cell walls, and the plant cells start to shrivel and shrink away.

Another experiment to demonstrate plasmolysis involves fresh flowers. Place a freshly cut flower into a cup or jar of plain water, and you'll keep it alive for days. However, if you place it in salt water, you'll quickly see the flower wilt. The cells inside the flower are starting to undergo plasmolysis, as we just discussed. The end result is wilting due to the cells shrinking.

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