Osmotic stress is a potent regulator of the normal function of cells that are exposed to osmotically active environments under physiologic or pathologic conditions. The ability of cells to alter gene expression and metabolic activity in response to changes in the osmotic environment provides an additional regulatory mechanism for a diverse array of tissues and organs in the human body. In addition to the activation of various osmotically- or volume-activated ion channels, osmotic stress may also act on the genome via a direct biophysical pathway. Changes in extracellular osmolality alter cell volume, and therefore, the concentration of intracellular macromolecules. In turn, intracellular macromolecule concentration is a key physical parameter affecting the spatial organization and pressurization of the nucleus. Hyperosmotic stress shrinks the nucleus and causes it to assume a convoluted shape, whereas hypo-osmotic stress swells the nucleus to a size that is limited by stretch of the nuclear lamina and induces a smooth, round shape of the nucleus. These behaviors are consistent with a model of the nucleus as a charged core/shell structure pressurized by uneven partition of macromolecules between the nucleoplasm and the cytoplasm. These osmotically-induced alterations in the internal structure and arrangement of chromatin, as well as potential changes in the nuclear membrane and pores are hypothesized to influence gene transcription and/or nucleocytoplasmic transport. A further understanding of the biophysical and biochemical mechanisms involved in these processes would have important ramifications for a range of fields including differentiation, migration, mechanotransduction, DNA repair, and tumorigenesis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)460-467
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of cellular biochemistry
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 15 2010


  • Cartilage
  • Cell mechanics
  • Chromatin
  • Ion channel
  • Nucleolus
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Transient receptor potential


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