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What is Cytolysis?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Cytolysis is a cell death which occurs as the result of a rupture in the cell's membrane. When a cell experiences cytolysis, it bursts, scattering its contents in the process. A number of things can cause cytolysis. This process is very different from apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in which a cell gradually shuts itself down, or is triggered to do so by another cell. The cytotoxic (or “toxic to cells”) cells in the immune system often utilize apoptosis to neutralize infected cells.

A common reason for cytolysis to occur is an interruption in the osmotic balance. Normally, bodily fluids make up an isotonic solution, meaning that their balance of salts is similar to the cells, and cells experience no net loss or gain as water and salts flow through them. This allows cells to stay healthy, and it provides a way for them to be flushed to remove toxins and refreshed with necessary minerals and other compounds.

If the body fluid becomes hypotonic, meaning that it is a solution of lower concentration than that found in the cell, the cell will tend to gain water. This is the result of osmotic pressure, which encourages solutions to flow from areas of low concentration to areas of high concentration. If the cell gains enough water, it can rupture, experiencing cytolysis and dying. This can happen to people experiencing water intoxication, as their body fluids become dangerously dilute, causing the cells in their bodies to swell.

Researchers can induce cytolysis in the laboratory setting by putting cells into a hypotonic solution which will cause them to swell and eventually burst. This can be used to prepare cells and solutions for various experiments and procedures, and to explore the boundaries of cytolysis to learn more about how specific types of cells work.

Some viruses can also initiate cytolysis by damaging the cell membrane. Viruses use this to their advantage, first colonizing a cell and forcing it to reproduce their DNA, and then causing the cell to rupture so that copies of the virus are scattered, allowing the virus to spread. By contrast, when an infected cell is attacked by the immune system, the immune system kills the cell without rupturing the cell membrane, ensuring that the virus cannot spread.

Some cells and organisms have measures in place which are designed to prevent rupture of the cell membrane. Plants, for example, have very rigid cell walls which resist bursting, although if a plant is frozen, the water in its cells can rupture the cell wall.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By healthy4life — On Oct 07, 2012

@Kristee – It usually happens to athletes or people who have suffered heat exhaustion. They are just so thirsty from sweating and being hot that they overcompensate by drinking an enormous amount of water.

My neighbor is an athlete, and he says that drinking water that has electrolytes added to it keeps him from getting water intoxication. If you drink water alone, you thin out your electrolytes, and this is where it gets dangerous.

If you keep adding electrolytes to your system along with the water, you can probably avoid cytolysis. You just don't want to wash out all your nutrients.

By Kristee — On Oct 06, 2012

I didn't know that it was possible to drink too much water! I've always heard you should drink eight glasses a day, and I don't know anyone who even does this.

Wouldn't you get nauseated before you reached the dangerous point? I know that I can only handle a little water at a time, because drinking too much of any fluid makes me feel bloated and gross inside. I don't think I could ever drink enough to cause cytolysis.

By StarJo — On Oct 06, 2012

I bet that cytolysis is what kills plants when they freeze. I have flowers in my garden that can survive several frosts, but once a hard freeze arrives at night, they die the next day.

They actually turn brown. It's so weird to see a flower that had been bright pink and green the day before suddenly completely wilted and devoid of color.

I guess their cells are rupturing underneath the layer of ice. It's always a sad day when I see the color and the life leave my garden for the year.

By shell4life — On Oct 05, 2012

The immune system is smart to avoid cytolysis when killing a cell. This is a definite advantage it has over the virus.

Viruses are sneaky by manipulating and brainwashing the cells that they overtake. The cells' only hope is that the immune system gets to it before the virus makes it rupture.

By anon113890 — On Sep 26, 2010

is cytolysis dangerous?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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