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Microbiol Rev. 1990 Dec;54(4):432-49.

Role of water in some biological processes.

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Department of Medicine, University of Auckland School of Medicine, New Zealand.


The state of intracellular water has been a matter of controversy for a long time for two reasons. First, experiments have often given conflicting results. Second, hitherto, there have been no plausible grounds for assuming that intracellular water should be significantly different from bulk water. A collective behavior of water molecules is suggested here as a thermodynamically inevitable mechanism for generation of appreciable zones of abnormal water. At a highly charged surface, water molecules move together, generating a zone of water perhaps 6 nm thick, which is weakly hydrogen bonded, fluid, and reactive and selectively accumulates small cations, multivalent anions, and hydrophobic solutes. At a hydrophobic surface, molecules move apart and local water becomes strongly bonded, inert, and viscous and accumulates large cations, univalent anions, and compatible solutes. Proteins and many other biopolymers have patchy surfaces which therefore induce, by the two mechanisms described, patchy interfacial water structures, which extended appreciable distances from the surface. The reason for many conflicting experimental results now becomes apparent. Average values of properties of water measured in gels, cells, or solutions of proteins are often not very different from the same properties of normal water, giving no indication that they are averages of extreme values. To detect the operation of this phenomenon, it is necessary to probe selectively a single abnormal population. Examples of such experiments are given. It is shown that this collective behavior of water molecules amounts to a considerable biological force, which can be equivalent to a pressure of 1,000 atm (1.013 x 10(5) kPa). It is suggested that cells selectively accumulate K+ ions and compatible solutes to avoid extremes of water structure in their aqueous compartments, but that cation pumps and other enzymes exploit the different solvent properties and reactivities of water to perform work of transport or synthesis.

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