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Diffusion is basically the movement of chemical species (ions or
molecules) under the influence of concentration difference. The
species will move from the high concentration area to the low
concentration area till the concentration is consistent in the whole
system. Diffusion mostly occurs in gases and liquids as these can move
The main features of an efficient diffusion system would be that it
has a large surface area, thin membrane and a continuous supply of
substances. A large surface area is needed so that high amount of
substances can be exchanged at a time while the thin membrane means
that the diffusion pathway would be short so that it is more
efficient. The continuous supply would help in maintaining a
concentration gradient which is essential for diffusion to take place.
The 2 main types of diffusion are simple and facilitated. Simple
diffusion is when a small, non-polar molecule passes through a lipid
bilayer. In this type of diffusion, a hydrophobic molecule moved into
the hydrophobic region of the membrane without getting rejected. A key
feature is that it does not need a carrier protein to take place. An
example of simple diffusion is osmosis.
Facilitated diffusion on the other hand is dependant on carrier
proteins to transport it across the membrane.
Diffusion is essential for many organisms as it is a feature of a
number of processes which control and supply vital substances to the
body in order for basic survival. A few of these are discussed below.
Gas exchange is one of these processes. It is when much needed oxygen
is obtained by the body in order for respiration to take place and the
waste CO2 is taken out of the body. In us mammals, the exchange takes
place in the lungs which contain a large number of alveoli. These are
sponge-like structures in which the diffusion takes place. They are
highly adapted to diffuse the gases as they give a large surface area
for exchange of the gases.
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between the alveoli and the blood capillaries meaning there is a short
diffusion pathway so diffusion takes place more efficiently. There is
a ventilation system which means there is continuous oxygen supply to
the alveoli which again makes diffusion more efficient.
Fish are adapted to exchange gases as the gills have many lamellae
which are covered with plates. These give a large surface area while
also they are very thin to give a short diffusion pathway. There is a
counter flow blood system meaning it flows in the opposite direction
of the water. This maintains a concentration gradient in order for
diffusion to take place.
The main feature of the mechanism in insects is that they have an
extensive tracheole system that gives a large surface area. These are
permeable to CO2 and O2 in order to allow the exchange of gases.
Plants require CO2 for the purpose of photosynthesis. Therefore they
have thin cell walls and membranes to allow gases to diffuse through.
There are stomata which control the entry and exit of gases while
there are large air spaces for circulation so that diffusion is
The transport of glucose to cells is by facilitated diffusion and this
is needed as all cells need to respire therefore glucose is vital.
Diffusion also plays a part in the human digestive system as after the
carbohydrates and other substances are processed through digestion,
the substances that are wanted and are small enough are reabsorbed
through the gut wall through diffusion. These can then be used for
energy and growth purposes.
The process of osmosis (or osmoregulation) is classed as a type of
diffusion. This is due to the fact that the substance (which is water
in the case of osmosis) moves from an area of high concentration to an
area with lower concentration.
One example of when osmosis takes place is when water is taken up by
the roots of plants. Firstly, the water enters the root hair from an
area of high water potential. As the water builds up in the cell, it
has a higher potential than that of the next cell up, meaning that
once again the water moves to the next cell by osmosis. This process
carries on transporting the water up through the roots. The system of
the roots is called the symplast pathway.
An instance of osmosis in mammals is the reabsorption of water from
the kidney tubules back into the blood. A function of the kidney is to
control the water level in the blood. The water is absorbed in the
descending limb of the loop of henle. This is the part which is
permeable to water. The water potential in the descending limb is
higher than in the surrounding tissues meaning that water diffuses
through into the tissues by osmosis. This is vital for mammals as it
controls water loss to a degree by keeping it to a minimum (although
water is lost by other means such as perspiration).
The occurrences of diffusion discussed above give us a basic insight
into the importance of diffusion in organisms. The majority of living
organisms require diffusion to take place in order for main systems to
function. These key systems such as gaseous exchange and water control
would be unable to function without diffusion taking place. . Without
diffusion there would be no respiration of the cells which is the
central process in all the biological systems, thus we can say safely
state that it is probably the most important process for organisms as
without it, there would be no chance of survival whatsoever.