Contractile vacuole
A contractile vacuole is a sub-cellular structure (organelle
In cell biology, an organelle is a specialized subunit within a cell that has a specific function, and is usually separately enclosed within its own lipid bilayer....

) involved in osmoregulation
Osmoregulation is the active regulation of the osmotic pressure of an organism's fluids to maintain the homeostasis of the organism's water content; that is it keeps the organism's fluids from becoming too diluted or too concentrated. Osmotic pressure is a measure of the tendency of water to move...

. It is found predominantly in protists and in unicellular algae
Algae are a large and diverse group of simple, typically autotrophic organisms, ranging from unicellular to multicellular forms, such as the giant kelps that grow to 65 meters in length. They are photosynthetic like plants, and "simple" because their tissues are not organized into the many...

. It was previously known as pulsatile or pulsating vacuole.


The CV pumps excess water
Water is a chemical substance with the chemical formula H2O. A water molecule contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms connected by covalent bonds. Water is a liquid at ambient conditions, but it often co-exists on Earth with its solid state, ice, and gaseous state . Water also exists in a...

 out of the cell
Cell (biology)
The cell is the basic structural and functional unit of all known living organisms. It is the smallest unit of life that is classified as a living thing, and is often called the building block of life. The Alberts text discusses how the "cellular building blocks" move to shape developing embryos....

. In freshwater
Fresh water is naturally occurring water on the Earth's surface in ice sheets, ice caps, glaciers, bogs, ponds, lakes, rivers and streams, and underground as groundwater in aquifers and underground streams. Fresh water is generally characterized by having low concentrations of dissolved salts and...

 environments the concentration
In chemistry, concentration is defined as the abundance of a constituent divided by the total volume of a mixture. Four types can be distinguished: mass concentration, molar concentration, number concentration, and volume concentration...

 of solutes
In chemistry, a solution is a homogeneous mixture composed of only one phase. In such a mixture, a solute is dissolved in another substance, known as a solvent. The solvent does the dissolving.- Types of solutions :...

 inside the cell is higher than outside the cell (i.e., the environment is hypotonic or hypoosmotic). Under these conditions water flows from the environment into the cell by osmosis
Osmosis is the movement of solvent molecules through a selectively permeable membrane into a region of higher solute concentration, aiming to equalize the solute concentrations on the two sides...

. The CV serves as a protective mechanism that prevents the cell from absorbing too much water and possibly exploding. The contractile vacuole should not be confused with the vacuole
A vacuole is a membrane-bound organelle which is present in all plant and fungal cells and some protist, animal and bacterial cells. Vacuoles are essentially enclosed compartments which are filled with water containing inorganic and organic molecules including enzymes in solution, though in certain...

, a different organelle much more common than the CV.

The CV, as its name suggests, expels water out of the cell by contracting. The growth (water gathering) and contraction (water expulsion) of the CV are periodical. One cycle takes several seconds, depending on the species and the environment's osmolarity. The stage in which water flows into the CV is called diastole. The contraction of the CV and the expulsion of water out of the cell is called systole.

Water always flows first from outside the cell into the cytoplasm
The cytoplasm is a small gel-like substance residing between the cell membrane holding all the cell's internal sub-structures , except for the nucleus. All the contents of the cells of prokaryote organisms are contained within the cytoplasm...

, and only then from the cytoplasm into the CV. Species that possess a CV always use it, even at very hypertonic (high concentration of solutes) environments, since the cell tends to adjust its cytoplasm to become even more hyperosmotic than the environment. The amount of water expelled from the cell and the rate of contraction are related to the osmolarity of the environment. In hyperosmotic environments less water will be expelled and the contraction cycle will be longer.

The most researched CVs belong to the protists Paramecium
Paramecium is a group of unicellular ciliate protozoa, which are commonly studied as a representative of the ciliate group, and range from about 0.05 to 0.35 mm in length. Simple cilia cover the body, which allow the cell to move with a synchronous motion at speeds of approximately 12 body...

, Amoeba
Amoeba is a genus of Protozoa.History=The amoeba was first discovered by August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof in 1757. Early naturalists referred to Amoeba as the Proteus animalcule after the Greek god Proteus, who could change his shape...

, Dictyostelium
Dictyostelium are Dictyostelid single celled eukaryotic, phagotrophic bacterivores usually present and often abundant in terrestrial ecosystems and are a normal component of the microflora in cells that help in soil balance between bacteria and soils. The amoeba are often grouped as slime mold ....

and Trypanosoma
Trypanosoma is a genus of kinetoplastids , a monophyletic group of unicellular parasitic flagellate protozoa. The name is derived from the Greek trypano and soma because of their corkscrew-like motion. All trypanosomes are heteroxenous and are transmitted via a vector...

, and to a lesser extent the green alga Chlamydomonas
Chlamydomonas is a genus of green algae. They are unicellular flagellates. Chlamydomonas is used as a model organism for molecular biology, especially studies of flagellar motility and chloroplast dynamics, biogenesis, and genetics...

. Not all species that possess a CV are freshwater organism
In biology, an organism is any contiguous living system . In at least some form, all organisms are capable of response to stimuli, reproduction, growth and development, and maintenance of homoeostasis as a stable whole.An organism may either be unicellular or, as in the case of humans, comprise...

s; some marine
Marine (ocean)
Marine is an umbrella term. As an adjective it is usually applicable to things relating to the sea or ocean, such as marine biology, marine ecology and marine geology...

 and even soil
Soil is a natural body consisting of layers of mineral constituents of variable thicknesses, which differ from the parent materials in their morphological, physical, chemical, and mineralogical characteristics...

A microorganism or microbe is a microscopic organism that comprises either a single cell , cell clusters, or no cell at all...

s also have a CV. The CV is predominant in species that do not have a cell wall
Cell wall
The cell wall is the tough, usually flexible but sometimes fairly rigid layer that surrounds some types of cells. It is located outside the cell membrane and provides these cells with structural support and protection, and also acts as a filtering mechanism. A major function of the cell wall is to...

, but there are exceptions (notably Chlamydomonas). Evolution
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

arily, the CV was mostly eliminated in multicellular organisms, but it still exists in the unicellular stage of several multicellular fungi, as well as in several types of cells in sponges (amoebocytes, pinacocyte
Pinacocytes are flat cells found on the outermost layer of a sponge. They can expand and contract to slightly alter the size of the sponge, and can also produce collagen.-References:

s, and choanocyte
Choanocytes are cells that line the interior of Asconoid, syconoid and leuconoid body type sponges that contain a central flagellum surrounded by a collar of microvilli which are connected by a thin membrane. It is the closest family member to the free-living ancestor called choanoflagellate...


The number of CVs per cell varies, depending on the species
In biology, a species is one of the basic units of biological classification and a taxonomic rank. A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. While in many cases this definition is adequate, more precise or differing measures are...

. Amoeba have one, Dictyostelium discoideum
Dictyostelium discoideum
Dictyostelium discoideum is a species of soil-living amoeba belonging to the phylum Mycetozoa. D. discoideum, commonly referred to as slime mold, is a eukaryote that transitions from a collection of unicellular amoebae into a multicellular slug and then into a fruiting body within its lifetime. D...

, Paramecium aurelia
Paramecium aurelia
Paramecium aurelia are unicellular organisms belonging to the genus Paramecium of the phylum Ciliophora. They are covered in cilia which help in movement and feeding.Paramecium can reproduce sexually, asexually, or by the process of endomixis...

and Chlamydomonas reinhardtii
Chlamydomonas reinhardtii
Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is a single celled green alga about 10 micrometres in diameter that swims with two flagella. They have a cell wall made of hydroxyproline-rich glycoproteins, a large cup-shaped chloroplast, a large pyrenoid, and an "eyespot" that senses light.Although widely distributed...

have two, and giant amoeba, such as Chaos carolinensis, have many. The number of CVs in each species is mostly constant, and is therefore used for species characterization in systematics
Biological systematics is the study of the diversification of terrestrial life, both past and present, and the relationships among living things through time. Relationships are visualized as evolutionary trees...

. The CV has several structures attached to it in most cells, such as membrane folds, tubule
A tubule is a very small tube or fistular structure.A system of surface-connected membranes in muscle that enables a nerve impulse to travel to the interior of the muscle fibre.In anatomy, a tubule is a minute tube lined with glandular epithelium....

s, water tracts and small vesicles. These structures are commonly known as the spongiome; the CV together with the spongiome is sometimes called the contractile vacuole complex (CVC). The spongiome serves several functions in water transport into the CV and in localization and docking of the CV within the cell.

Paramecium and Amoeba possess large CVs (average diameter of 13 and 45 µm, respectively), which are relatively comfortable to isolate, manipulate and assay. The smallest known CVs belong to Chlamydomonas, with a diameter of 1.5 µm. In Paramecium, which presumably has the most complex and highly evolved CV, the vacuole is surrounded by several canals, which absorb water by osmosis from the cytoplasm. After the canals fill with water, the water is pumped into the vacuole. When the vacuole is full, it expels the water through a pore
- Animal biology and microbiology :* Sweat pore, an anatomical structure of the skin of humans used for secretion of sweat* Canal pore, an anatomical structure that is part of the lateral line sense system of some aquatic organisms...

 in the cytoplasm which can be opened and closed. Other protists, such as Amoeba
Amoeba is a genus of Protozoa.History=The amoeba was first discovered by August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof in 1757. Early naturalists referred to Amoeba as the Proteus animalcule after the Greek god Proteus, who could change his shape...

, have CVs that move to the surface of the cell when full and undergo exocytosis
Exocytosis , also known as 'The peni-cytosis', is the durable process by which a cell directs the contents of secretory vesicles out of the cell membrane...

. In Amoeba contractile vacuoles collect excretory waste, such as ammonia
Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen with the formula . It is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent odour. Ammonia contributes significantly to the nutritional needs of terrestrial organisms by serving as a precursor to food and fertilizers. Ammonia, either directly or...

, from the intracellular fluid by both diffusion
Molecular diffusion, often called simply diffusion, is the thermal motion of all particles at temperatures above absolute zero. The rate of this movement is a function of temperature, viscosity of the fluid and the size of the particles...

 and active transport
Active transport
Active transport is the movement of a substance against its concentration gradient . In all cells, this is usually concerned with accumulating high concentrations of molecules that the cell needs, such as ions, glucose, and amino acids. If the process uses chemical energy, such as from adenosine...


Water flow into the CV

The way in which water enters the CV had been a mystery for many years, but several discoveries since the 1990s have improved understanding of this issue. Water could theoretically cross the CV membrane by osmosis, but only if the inside of the CV is hyperosmotic (higher solute concentration) to the cytoplasm. The discovery of proton pump
Proton pump
A proton pump is an integral membrane protein that is capable of moving protons across a cell membrane, mitochondrion, or other organelle. Mechanisms are based on conformational changes of the protein structure or on the Q cycle.-Function:...

s in the CV membrane and the direct measurement of ion concentrations inside the CV using microelectrodes led to the following model: the pumping of protons either into or out of the CV causes different ion
An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge. The name was given by physicist Michael Faraday for the substances that allow a current to pass between electrodes in a...

s to enter the CV. For example, some proton pumps work as cation exchangers, whereby a proton is pumped out of the CV and a cation is pumped at the same time into the CV. In other cases, protons pumped into the CV drag anions with them (carbonate
In chemistry, a carbonate is a salt of carbonic acid, characterized by the presence of the carbonate ion, . The name may also mean an ester of carbonic acid, an organic compound containing the carbonate group C2....

, for example), to balance the pH
In chemistry, pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution. Pure water is said to be neutral, with a pH close to 7.0 at . Solutions with a pH less than 7 are said to be acidic and solutions with a pH greater than 7 are basic or alkaline...

. This ion flux into the CV causes an increase in CV osmolarity and as a result water enters the CV by osmosis. Water has been shown in at least some species to enter the CV through aquaporin
Aquaporins are proteins embedded in the cell membrane that regulate the flow of water.Aquaporins are integral membrane proteins from a larger family of major intrinsic proteins that form pores in the membrane of biological cells....


Acidocalcisomes are rounded electron-dense acidic organelles, rich in calcium and polyphosphate and between 100 nm and 200 nm in diameter....

s have been implied to work alongside the contractile vacuole in responding to osmotic stress. They were detected in the vicinity of the vacuole in Trypanosoma cruzi
Trypanosoma cruzi
Trypanosoma cruzi is a species of parasitic euglenoid trypanosomes. This species causes the trypanosomiasis diseases in humans and animals in America...

and were shown to fuse with the vacuole when the cells were exposed to osmotic stress. Presumably the acidocalcisomes empty their ion contents into the contractile vacuole, thereby increasing the vacuole's osmolarity.

Unresolved issues

The CV indeed does not exist in higher organisms, but some of its unique characteristics are used by the former in their own osmoregulatory mechanisms. Research on the CV can therefore help us understand how osmoregulation works in all species. Many issues regarding the CV remain, as of 2010, unsolved:
  • Contraction. It is not completely known what causes the CV to contract, and whether it is an active process which costs energy
    In physics, energy is an indirectly observed quantity. It is often understood as the ability a physical system has to do work on other physical systems...

     or a passive collapse of the CV membrane. Evidence for involvement of actin
    Actin is a globular, roughly 42-kDa moonlighting protein found in all eukaryotic cells where it may be present at concentrations of over 100 μM. It is also one of the most highly-conserved proteins, differing by no more than 20% in species as diverse as algae and humans...

     and myosin
    Myosins comprise a family of ATP-dependent motor proteins and are best known for their role in muscle contraction and their involvement in a wide range of other eukaryotic motility processes. They are responsible for actin-based motility. The term was originally used to describe a group of similar...

    , prominent contractile protein
    Proteins are biochemical compounds consisting of one or more polypeptides typically folded into a globular or fibrous form, facilitating a biological function. A polypeptide is a single linear polymer chain of amino acids bonded together by peptide bonds between the carboxyl and amino groups of...

    s which are found in many cells, are ambiguous.
  • Membrane composition. Although it is known that several proteins decorate the CV membrane (V-H+-ATPases, aquaporins), a complete list is missing. The composition of the membrane itself and its similarities to and differences from other cellular membranes are also not clear.
  • Contents of the CV. Several studies have shown the ion concentrations inside some of the largest CVs but not in the smallest ones (such as in the important model organism Chlamydomonas rheinhardii). The reasons and mechanisms for ion exchange between the CV and cytoplasm are not entirely clear.
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