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Physiol Rev. 2007 Oct;87(4):1441-74.

Cellular response to hyperosmotic stresses.

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National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-1603, USA.


Cells in the renal inner medulla are normally exposed to extraordinarily high levels of NaCl and urea. The osmotic stress causes numerous perturbations because of the hypertonic effect of high NaCl and the direct denaturation of cellular macromolecules by high urea. High NaCl and urea elevate reactive oxygen species, cause cytoskeletal rearrangement, inhibit DNA replication and transcription, inhibit translation, depolarize mitochondria, and damage DNA and proteins. Nevertheless, cells can accommodate by changes that include accumulation of organic osmolytes and increased expression of heat shock proteins. Failure to accommodate results in cell death by apoptosis. Although the adapted cells survive and function, many of the original perturbations persist, and even contribute to signaling the adaptive responses. This review addresses both the perturbing effects of high NaCl and urea and the adaptive responses. We speculate on the sensors of osmolality and document the multiple pathways that signal activation of the transcription factor TonEBP/OREBP, which directs many aspects of adaptation. The facts that numerous cellular functions are altered by hyperosmolality and remain so, even after adaptation, indicate that both the effects of hyperosmolality and adaptation to it involve profound alterations of the state of the cells.

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