Regulation of cell volume is central to homeostasis. It is assumed to begin with the detection of a change in water potential across the bounding membrane, but it is not clear how this is accomplished. While examples of general osmoreceptors (which sense osmotic pressure in one phase) and stretch-activated ion channels (which require swelling of a cell or organelle) are known, effective volume regulation requires true transmembrane osmosensors (TMOs) which directly detect a water potential difference spanning a membrane. At present, no TMO molecule has been unambiguously identified, and clear evidence for mammalian TMOs is notably lacking. In this paper, we set out a theory of TMOs which requires a water channel spanning the membrane that excludes the major osmotic solutes, responds directly without the need for any other process such as swelling, and signals to other molecules associated with the magnitude of changing osmotic differences. The most likely molecules that are fit for this purpose and which are also ubiquitous in eukaryotic cells are aquaporins (AQPs). We review experimental evidence from several systems which indicates that AQPs are essential elements in regulation and may be functioning as TMOs; i.e. the first step in an osmosensing sequence that signals osmotic imbalance in a cell or organelle. We extend this concept to several systems of current interest in which the cellular involvement of AQPs as simple water channels is puzzling or counter-intuitive. We suggest that, apart from regulatory volume changes in cells, AQPs may also be acting as TMOs in red cells, secretory granules and microorganisms.
The Journal of Membrane Biology – Springer Journals
Published: Mar 20, 2015
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