When a compound enters a living cell until its activity becomes greater inside than outside, it may be said to accumulate. Since it moves from a region where its activity is relatively low to a region where its activity is relatively high, it is evident that work must be done to bring this about.
The following explanation is suggested to account for accumulation.
The protoplasmic surface is covered with a non-aqueous layer which is permeable to molecules but almost impermeable to ions. Hence free ions cannot enter except in very small numbers. The experiments indicate that ions combine at the outer surface with organic molecules (carrier molecules) and are thus able to enter freely. If upon reaching the aqueous protoplasm these molecules are decomposed or altered so as to set the ions free, the ions must be trapped since they cannot pass out except in very small numbers.
If we adopt this point of view we can suggest answers to some important questions. Among these are the following:
1. Why accumulation is confined to electrolytes. This is evident since only ions will be trapped.
2. Why ions appear to penetrate against a gradient. Actually there is no such penetration since the ions enter in combination with molecules. The energy needed to raise the activity of entering compounds is furnished by the reactions involved in the process of accumulation.
3. Why, in absence of injury, ions do not come out when the cell is placed in distilled water. Presumably the outgoing ions will combine at the outer surface with carrier molecules and then move inward in the same way as ions coming from without.
4. Why the relative rate of penetration falls off as the external concentration increases. This is because the entrance of ions is limited by the number of carrier molecules but no such limitation exists when ions move outward since they can do so without combining with carrier molecules.
5. Why accumulation is promoted by constructive metabolism which is needed to build up the organic molecules and by destructive metabolism which brings about their decomposition.
6. Why measuring the mobilities of ions in the outer protoplasmic surface does not enable us to predict the relative rate of entrance of ions. We find for example in Nitella that K+ has a much higher mobility than Na+ but the accumulation of these ions does not differ greatly. This is to be expected if they enter by combining with molecules at the surface. Only if K+ is able to combine preferentially will it accumulate preferentially.
7. Why ions may come out in anoxia and at low temperatures. If these conditions depress the formation of carrier molecules and their decomposition in the protoplasm, the balance between intake and outgo of ions will be disturbed and relatively more may come out.
8. Why the excess of internal over external osmotic pressure is less in sea water than in fresh water. As the external concentration of ions increases the rate of intake does not increase in direct proportion since the number of carrier molecules does not increase and this slows down the relative rate of intake of ions. But it does not slow down the rate of exit of ions since they need not combine with carrier molecules in order to pass out. Hence the excess of ions inside will be relatively less as the concentration of external ions increases.
9. How water is pumped from solutions of higher to solutions of lower osmotic pressure. If metabolism and consequently accumulation is higher at one end of a cell than at the other, the internal osmotic pressure will be higher at the more active end and this makes it possible for the cell to pump water from solutions of higher osmotic pressure at the more active end to solutions of lower osmotic pressure at the less active, as shown experimentally for Nitella. This might help to explain the action of kidney cells and the production of root pressure in plants.