Osmotic stress is a potent regulator of biological function in many cell types, but its mechanism of action is only partially understood. In this study, we examined whether changes in extracellular osmolality can alter chromatin condensation and the rate of nucleocytoplasmic transport, as potential mechanisms by which osmotic stress can act. Transport of 10 kDa dextran was measured both within and between the nucleus and the cytoplasm using two different photobleaching methods. A mathematical model was developed to describe fluorescence recovery via nucleocytoplasmic transport. As osmolality increased, the diffusion coefficient of dextran decreased in the cytoplasm, but not the nucleus. Hyper-osmotic stress decreased nuclear size and increased nuclear lacunarity, indicating that while the nucleus was getting smaller, the pores and channels interdigitating the chromatin had expanded. The rate of nucleocytoplasmic transport was increased under hyper-osmotic stress but was insensitive to hypo-osmotic stress, consistent with the nonlinear osmotic properties of the nucleus. The mechanism of this osmotic sensitivity appears to be a change in the size and geometry of the nucleus, resulting in a shorter effective diffusion distance for the nucleus. These results may explain physical mechanisms by which osmotic stress can influence intracellular signaling pathways that rely on nucleocytoplasmic transport.
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