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32.1Osmoregulation and Osmotic Balance

Solute concentrations across a semi-permeable membranes influence the movement of water and solutes across the membrane. It is the number of solute molecules and not the molecular size that is important in osmosis. Osmoregulation and osmotic balance are important bodily functions, resulting in water and salt balance. Not all solutes can pass through a semi-permeable membrane. Osmosis is the movement of water across the membrane. Osmosis occurs to equalize the number of solute molecules across a semi-permeable membrane by the movement of water to the side of higher solute concentration. Facilitated diffusion utilizes protein channels to move solute molecules from areas of higher to lower concentration while active transport mechanisms are required to move solutes against concentration gradients. Osmolarity is measured in units of milliequivalents or milliosmoles, both of which take into consideration the number of solute particles and the charge on them. Fish that live in fresh water or saltwater adapt by being osmoregulators or osmoconformers.

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32.2The Kidneys and Osmoregulatory Organs

The kidneys are the main osmoregulatory organs in mammalian systems; they function to filter blood and maintain the osmolarity of body fluids at 300 mOsm. They are surrounded by three layers and are made up internally of three distinct regions—the cortex, medulla, and pelvis.

The blood vessels that transport blood into and out of the kidneys arise from and merge with the aorta and inferior vena cava, respectively. The renal arteries branch out from the aorta and enter the kidney where they further divide into segmental, interlobar, arcuate, and cortical radiate arteries.

The nephron is the functional unit of the kidney, which actively filters blood and generates urine. The nephron is made up of the renal corpuscle and renal tubule. Cortical nephrons are found in the renal cortex, while juxtamedullary nephrons are found in the renal cortex close to the renal medulla. The nephron filters and exchanges water and solutes with two sets of blood vessels and the tissue fluid in the kidneys.

There are three steps in the formation of urine: glomerular filtration, which occurs in the glomerulus; tubular reabsorption, which occurs in the renal tubules; and tubular secretion, which also occurs in the renal tubules.

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32.3Excretion Systems

Many systems have evolved for excreting wastes that are simpler than the kidney and urinary systems of vertebrate animals. The simplest system is that of contractile vacuoles present in microorganisms. Flame cells and nephridia in worms perform excretory functions and maintain osmotic balance. Some insects have evolved Malpighian tubules to excrete wastes and maintain osmotic balance.

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32.4Nitrogenous Wastes

Ammonia is the waste produced by metabolism of nitrogen-containing compounds like proteins and nucleic acids. While aquatic animals can easily excrete ammonia into their watery surroundings, terrestrial animals have evolved special mechanisms to eliminate the toxic ammonia from their systems. Urea is the major byproduct of ammonia metabolism in vertebrate animals. Uric acid is the major byproduct of ammonia metabolism in birds, terrestrial arthropods, and reptiles.

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32.5Hormonal Control of Osmoregulatory Functions

Hormonal cues help the kidneys synchronize the osmotic needs of the body. Hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, renin-angiotensin, aldosterone, anti-diuretic hormone, and atrial natriuretic peptide help regulate the needs of the body as well as the communication between the different organ systems.