The prime function of aquaporins (AQPs) is generally believed to be that of increasing water flow rates across membranes by raising their osmotic or hydraulic permeability. In addition, this applies to other small solutes of physiological importance. Notable applications of this ‘simple permeability hypothesis’ (SPH) have been epithelial fluid transport in animals, water exchanges associated with transpiration, growth and stress in plants, and osmoregulation in microbes. We first analyze the need for such increased permeabilities and conclude that in a range of situations at the cellular, subcellular and tissue levels the SPH cannot satisfactorily account for the presence of AQPs. The analysis includes an examination of the effects of the genetic elimination or reduction of AQPs (knockouts, antisense transgenics and null mutants). These either have no effect, or a partial effect that is difficult to explain, and we argue that they do not support the hypothesis beyond showing that AQPs are involved in the process under examination. We assume that since AQPs are ubiquitous, they must have an important function and suggest that this is the detection of osmotic and turgor pressure gradients. A mechanistic model is proposed—in terms of monomer structure and changes in the tetrameric configuration of AQPs in the membrane—for how AQPs might function as sensors. Sensors then signal within the cell to control diverse processes, probably as part of feedback loops. Finally, we examine how AQPs as sensors may serve animal, plant and microbial cells and show that this sensor hypothesis can provide an explanation of many basic processes in which AQPs are already implicated. Aquaporins are molecules in search of a function; osmotic and turgor sensors are functions in search of a molecule.
The Journal of Membrane Biology – Springer Journals
Published: Jan 1, 2003
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