General models for water transport across leaky epithelia

Int Rev Cytol. 2002;215:285-317. doi: 10.1016/s0074-7696(02)15013-3.


The group of leaky epithelia, such as proximal tubule and small intestine, have several common properties in regard to salt and water transport. The fluid transport is isotonic, the transport rate increases in dilute solutions, and water can be transported uphill. Yet, it is difficult to find common features that could form the basis for a general transport model. The direction of transepithelial water transport does not correlate with the direction of the primary active Na+ transport, or with the ultrastucture as defined by the location of apical and basolateral membranes, of the junctional complex and the lateral intercellular spaces. The presence of specific water channels, aquaporins, increases the water permeability of the epithelial cell membranes, i.e., the kidney proximal tubule. Yet other leaky epithelia, for example, the retinal pigment epithelium, have no known aquaporins. There is, however, a general correlation between the direction of transepithelial transport and the direction of transport via cotransporters of the symport type. A simple epithelial model based on water permeabilities, a hyperosmolar compartment and restricted salt diffusion, is unable to explain epithelial transport phenomena, in particular the ability for uphill water transport. The inclusion of cotransporters as molecular water pumps in these models alleviates this problem.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aquaporins / metabolism
  • Body Water / metabolism*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Cell Membrane / ultrastructure
  • Cell Membrane Permeability / physiology
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Epithelial Cells / ultrastructure
  • Humans
  • Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism*
  • Membrane Transport Proteins / ultrastructure
  • Models, Biological
  • Water-Electrolyte Balance / physiology*


  • Aquaporins
  • Membrane Transport Proteins