Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Diffusion

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
Diffusion

How do molecules move across the plasma membrane without the use of energy? In this article, we will discuss molecular diffusion: what it is, what are some examples, what factors affect the rate of diffusion, and how it is distinguished from osmosis. We will also touch on facilitated diffusion and the types of transport proteins involved.

What is molecular diffusion in biology?

Molecules are in constant motion, and as a result, they have thermal energy that causes them to move towards any available space, a process called molecular diffusion (or simply diffusion). They move in the direction of the concentration gradient: from a region of higher concentration to a region of lower concentration until the two have reached dynamic equilibrium.

The diffusion of molecules across the plasma membrane is considered a form of passive transport, meaning it does not require energy. However, due to the selective permeability of the plasma membrane, not all molecules can passively diffuse through it. The size, charge, or other properties of the molecules may prevent them from passing through the plasma membrane.

Diffusion: a process where molecules distribute themselves to any available space.

Concentration gradient: gradient created when there is a difference in the amounts of a substance on the two sides of a membrane, with one side having a higher concentration.

Dynamic equilibrium: the concentration of the molecules becomes equal on either side of the membrane, molecules move one by one across, continuing to move but keeping equilibrium.

The process of molecular diffusion is illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Diffusion Diagram of molecular diffusion through a semipermeable membrane Study Smarter

Figure 1. This simple diagram shows how molecules (the red dots) move from an area of higher to lower concentration. Over time, diffusion has led the two areas to reach equilibrium. Source: Diffusion.en.jpg: derivative work: Quasar Jarosz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

What are some examples of diffusion?

Consider someone opening a bottle of perfume in the middle of a crowded room. The perfume has the maximum concentration in the bottle and the lowest concentration toward the room's walls. The perfume diffuses away from the bottle, and as the perfume spreads, more people will smell it.

The same process occurs when substances move across the plasma membrane through diffusion: the difference in concentration between the cytosol (the fluid contained in the cell) and the extracellular fluid (the fluid outside the cell) causes molecules to move towards the region with lower concentration. If the characteristics of the molecule allow it to flow freely through the membrane (small, hydrophobic, nonpolar), it will easily cross towards the area with lower concentration until equilibrium is met.

An example of this is the gas exchange that occurs in the gills and lungs. The production of carbon dioxide in the cell creates a difference in carbon dioxide concentration between the inside and outside of the cell. Since it is produced inside the cell, the net movement of carbon dioxide is outward. On the other hand, many metabolic processes that take place in the cell require oxygen, which is in a lower concentration inside the cell. Since it is sourced from outside the cell, the net movement of oxygen is inward. In both cases, oxygen and carbon dioxide pass through the plasma membrane via diffusion.

What factors affect the rate of diffusion?

Diffusion happens at different rates depending on several factors:

  • Concentration gradient: The higher the concentration difference, the faster the diffusion. As the distribution of substances approaches equilibrium, the diffusion rate slows.
  • Solvent density: The higher the density of the solvent, the lower the rate of diffusion. This is because molecules move slower through a denser medium. On the other hand, the lower the density of the solvent, the faster the diffusion.
  • Molecular mass: Heavier molecules travel more slowly, so they diffuse more slowly. On the other hand, lighter molecules travel faster, so they diffuse faster.
  • Temperature: Higher temperatures increase thermal energy which leads to an increase in the rate of movement of the molecules, thereby increasing the rate of diffusion. The opposite is true of lower temperatures.
FactorDiffuse SLOWLYDiffuse FASTER
Concentration GradientLittle difference in amounts, close to equilibrium, low concentration gradientBig difference in amounts, high concentration gradient
Solvent densityHigher density solventLower density solvent
Molecular massHeavier moleculesLighter molecules
TemperatureLower temperaturesHigher temperatures
Table 1. Summary of factors that affect diffusion.

Osmosis vs diffusion: what are their similarities and differences?

Osmosis and diffusion are both passive transport processes that occur when two solutions of different concentrations equalize through the movement of particles from an area of higher to lower concentration.

However, osmosis and diffusion are considered two different processes. A key distinction is that in diffusion, both solvent and solute molecules move, but in osmosis, only solvent molecules move across the membrane.

Solute: in a solution, it is the substance that is dissolved by a solvent

Solvent: in a solution, it is the substance that dissolves a solute

Osmosis is a specific type of diffusion wherein solute molecules on each side of a semi-permeable membrane reach equilibrium, not by moving themselves, but rather through the movement of water toward the region of higher solute concentration. This tends to happen when solute particles cannot pass through a barrier themselves.

For example, Figure 2 shows how osmosis takes place in a U-shaped tube with two sections separated by a dialysis membrane. When sugar is added to water on one side of the membrane, osmosis occurs through the membrane. The water level rises where the sugar was added and falls on the other.

Diffusion Osmosis as demonstrated by a U-shaped tube Study Smarter

Figure 2. This diagram demonstrates osmosis using a U-shaped tube with two sections separated by a dialysis membrane. Source: KDS4444, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

What is facilitated diffusion?

Facilitated diffusion is a type of diffusion in which molecules or ions that cannot cross the phospholipid bilayer of the plasma membrane are diffused across the membrane with the help of transport proteins.

Facilitated diffusion is a form of passive transport: while it speeds up the movement of molecules through the plasma membrane, it does not change the direction of the movement. Molecules still move in the direction of the concentration gradient, and thus the process doesn't require chemical energy directly.

There are two types of transport proteins: channel proteins and carrier proteins. We will discuss each of these briefly in the following section.

Channel proteins

Channel proteins create hydrophilic channels for ions and other small molecules to pass through via diffusion. Channel proteins tend to selectively allow the passage of specific substances.

Diffusion Channel protein diagram Study Smarter

Figure 3. This diagram shows how channel proteins facilitate diffusion by creating hydrophilic passageways. Source: OpenStax, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

An example of this are channels that allow water to move through membranes. Water channel proteins are called aquaporins, and they facilitate osmosis by transporting water molecules (recall that osmosis is the diffusion of water). Some kidney cells have a lot of aquaporins that enable them to take water from urine before it is expelled from the body.

On the other hand, some ion channel proteins (channel proteins that transport ions) act like gated channels that open or close in response to certain stimuli.

In neurons, voltage-gated ion channels open in response to electrical stimuli, allowing sodium ions to enter the cell. Even if a channel is gated, ions are still moving in the direction of their concentration gradient, and do not require ATP to do so.

Carrier proteins

Carrier proteins bind to solute molecules and change shape in a way that enables them to carry them across the membrane. Carrier proteins tend to be more selective than channel proteins.

Diffusion Carrier protein diagram Study Smarter

Figure 4. This diagram shows how carrier proteins facilitate diffusion by changing their shape according to the specific solute being transported. Source: OpenStax, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

To transport glucose throughout the body, there is a carrier protein found in red blood cells that transports glucose across the plasma membrane. This glucose carrier protein specifically transports glucose and rejects other substances, including fructose, which is a structural isomer of glucose.

Diffusion - Key takeaways

  • Molecular diffusion– or simply diffusion–is a process where molecules distribute themselves to any available space, from low to high concentration.
  • Diffusion is a form of passive transport, a process by which substances are moved across a membrane without the use of energy.
  • Osmosis and diffusion are two considered different processes. A key distinction is that in diffusion, both solvent and solute molecules move, but in osmosis, only solvent molecules move across the membrane.
  • Facilitated diffusion is a type of diffusion in which molecules or ions that cannot cross the phospholipid bilayer of the plasma membrane by themselves are diffused across the membrane with the help of transport proteins. There are two types of transport proteins:
    • Channel proteins create hydrophilic channels for ions and other small molecules to pass.
    • Carrier proteins bind to solute molecules and change shape in a way that enables them to carry them across the membrane.

Frequently Asked Questions about Diffusion

Diffusion is a process where molecules distribute themselves to any available space.  

No, facilitated diffusion is a form of passive transport thus requires no energy.

Diffusion is a form of passive transport.

Facilitated diffusion is a type of diffusion in which molecules or ions that are blocked by the phospholipid bilayer of the plasma membrane are diffused across the membrane with the help of transport proteins.

A key distinction is that in diffusion, both solvent and solute molecules move, but in osmosis, only solvent molecules move across the membrane.  

Final Diffusion Quiz

Question

What is diffusion?

Show answer

Answer

Diffusion is a process where molecules distribute themselves to any available space.

Show question

Question

What is a concentration gradient?

Show answer

Answer

Concentration gradient refers to regions with different concentrations of a substance

Show question

Question

What is dynamic equilibrium?

Show answer

Answer

Dynamic equilibrium is the lack of concentration gradient and net movement of substances

Show question

Question

How does diffusion take place?

Show answer

Answer

Molecules distribute themselves to any available space. They move in from a region of higher concentration to a region of lower concentration until the two have reached dynamic equilibrium.  

Show question

Question

Is diffusion a form of passive or active transport?

Show answer

Answer

Passive Transport

Show question

Question

Is facilitated diffusion a form of passive or active transport?

Show answer

Answer

Passive Transport

Show question

Question

Does diffusion require energy?

Show answer

Answer

No, diffusion does not require energy

Show question

Question

Can diffusion transport molecules against the concentration gradient?

Show answer

Answer

No, diffusion is a form of passive transport where molecules are moved in the direction of the concentration gradient. Molecules require active transport to be moved against the concentration gradient.

Show question

Question

How does the concentration gradient affect diffusion?

Show answer

Answer

The higher the concentration difference, the faster the diffusion.

Show question

Question

How does solvent density affect diffusion?

Show answer

Answer

The higher the density of the solvent, the lower the rate of diffusion.

Show question

Question

How does molecular mass affect diffusion?

Show answer

Answer

Heavier molecules diffuse more slowly, while lighter molecules diffuse faster.

Show question

Question

How does temperature affect diffusion?

Show answer

Answer

Higher temperatures increase the rate of diffusion.  

Show question

Question

What is the difference between osmosis and diffusion?

Show answer

Answer

A key distinction is that in diffusion, both solvent and solute molecules move, but in osmosis, only solvent molecules move across the membrane.  

Show question

Question

What is facilitated diffusion?

Show answer

Answer

Facilitated diffusion is a type of diffusion in which molecules or ions that are blocked by the phospholipid bilayer of the plasma membrane are diffused across the membrane with the help of transport proteins. 

Show question

Question

What is the similarity between osmosis and diffusion?

Show answer

Answer

Osmosis and diffusion are both passive transport processes that occur when two solutions of different concentrations equalize through the movement of particles from an area of higher to lower concentration.

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Diffusion quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.