Have you ever wondered how plants "drink" water from the soil? Water uptake in plants is quite complicated. A process called osmosis helps the water move from the soil into the plant roots—and then into the plant's cells. In this activity you will see for yourself how you can make water move with osmosis!
Most water in the ground is not pure water. It usually contains dissolved mineral salts. Animals and plants need these salts (which include calcium, magnesium, potassium and the sodium you might be familiar with as table salt) to grow, develop and stay healthy. Different water sources carry different amounts of these salts. Nature wants to balance a system that is not balanced. So, if you mix water with two different salt concentrations, the salts don't stay separated but spread out evenly through the solution until the salt concentration is the same throughout.
You'll find a similar reaction if you separate two salt solutions with a semipermeable membrane. A semipermeable membrane is a type of barrier that only lets certain particles pass through while blocking others. This type of membrane usually lets water pass through but not the salts that are dissolved in the water. In this situation, because only water can move through this membrane, the water will start moving from the area of lower salt concentration (which has more water and less salt) to the area of higher salt concentration (which has less water and more salt). This water movement will only stop once the salt and water concentration on both sides of the membrane is the same.
The process of moving water across a semipermeable membrane is called osmosis. Plants use this process to their advantage for water uptake. They create an environment of high salt concentration in their root cells that are in contact with the soil. The cell walls act as a semipermeable membrane that only let water through. Because the water outside the root cells has a lower salt concentration, water starts moving into the root cells due to osmosis. The water entering the plant fills up the cells and can travel to the rest of the plant. Osmosis, however, works in both directions. If you put a plant into water with a salt concentration that is higher than the concentration inside its cells, water will move out of the plant to balance out the concentration difference. As a result, the plant shrinks and eventually dies. You will see this effect with your own eyes in this activity using potatoes and different saltwater solutions.
Did your potato strips shrink and expand? At the beginning all the potato strips should have had the same length and should have all felt the same. When you put them into the different solutions, however, this starts to change. Whereas the potato strips in the "0 gram" cup probably got larger in size, the other potato strips probably got shorter after leaving them in the saltwater for 30 minutes. (If you didn't see any significant changes after 30 minutes, leave the potato strips in the saltwater solutions longer.)
The shrinking and expanding of the potato strips is due to osmosis. Potatoes are made of cells, and their cell walls act as semipermeable membranes. The 0 grams solution contains less salts and more water than the potato cells (which have more salts and less water). To balance out these concentration differences, the water from the cup moves into the potato cells. The incoming water in the potato cells pushes on the cell walls and makes the cells bigger. As a result, the whole potato strip gets bigger. The opposite is the case in the higher concentration salt solutions. If the salt concentration in the cup is higher than inside the potato cells, water moves out of the potato into the cup. This leads to shrinkage of the potato cells, which explains why the potato strips get smaller in length and diameter. Due to the shrinking of the potato cells the potato strip also becomes less rigid. If you bent the potato strips, you should have noticed that those that had been in the solution with the highest amount of salt were much easier to bend than the potato strips in the water without salt.
If you made the graph you probably noticed that there is a salt concentration at which the potato strip neither expands nor shrinks. This should be where your data curve and your start length line intersect. At this point the salt concentration inside the potato cells and inside the cup are the same. Because the concentrations are already balanced no water moves.
Discard the saltwater solutions in the sink. Throw the potato strips into the compost, and clean up your workspace. You can cook with the other pieces of unused potato.
This experiment was selected for Science at Home because it teaches NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas, which have broad importance within or across multiple science or engineering disciplines.
Learn more about how this experiment is based in NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas.