Turgid Definition

In biology, turgid refers to cells or tissues that are swollen from water uptake. Many cell types in many different organisms can become turgid due to water uptake. Some cells will lyse, or split open if they become too turgid. Other cells are meant to be turgid and have a dense and complexly woven extracellular matrix made of special fibrous molecules. In animals, turgid cells are protected by an extracellular matrix consisting of many different molecules. Cartilage and other connective tissues, for example, are made of many proteoglycan molecules. These molecules are mixtures of proteins and sugars that create a firm connection between adjacent cells. The extracellular matrix provides support for the cells and allows them to remain rigid in the face of external pressures on the joints, like running or jumping.

Plant cells, in contrast to animal cells, are almost always turgid due to the action of a large vacuole in each of their cells. The special membrane of this plant-specific organelle, the tonoplast, actively moves water into the vacuole, along with other molecules that need to be stored. This swells the vacuole, creating a pressure on the walls of the cell. This pressure is called turgor pressure. A cell with high turgor pressure is said to be turgid. The turgor pressure exerted by the vacuole pushes outward on the cellulose in the cell wall. The strong cellulose fibers are wound tightly around each other to create a strong cell wall. When the walls of many turgid cells push against each other, a plant can gain a rigid form. While animals use turgid cells only for special functions, the many turgid cells in a plant allow it to stand straight up. Further, by lowering the pressure on specific sides of the plant, the plant can move its leaves and stems to intake the maximum amount of sunlight. Many plants that must compete at getting sunlight are experts in manipulating the pressures of each of their cells in order to move their leaves. It is not yet completely understood how this process works.

Other types of life, like bacteria and fungi, also have cell walls that surround their plasma membranes. Fungi use their cell walls in much the same way as plants, to create a rigid structure that can withstand the elements. Bacteria, because they are single cells, do not use their cell wall to build multi-cellular structures. Instead, the cell wall functions to protect the bacteria from breaking open. Without the cell wall, if the bacteria was exposed to pure water, the water would make the cell too turgid as it rushed in, and the cell would lyse. Instead, as water rushes out and the cell becomes more turgid, the cell wall contains the pressure, and keeps the cell membrane from rupturing. The increased pressure inside the cell offsets the water potential, and the water flow into the cell is cut back. Thus, bacterial cells and other cells with cell walls are protected from becoming too turgid when placed in a weak solution.

As a common laboratory experiment, animal cells will become turgid if they are placed in an environment that is hypotonic in comparison to the contents of the cell. This means that the concentration of solutes in the environment is less than the concentration of solutes in the cell. To deal with too much water, animals must actively pump water out of their cells. If the cells cannot remove the water faster than it enters the cells, the cells will soon become too turgid and lyse. If plant cells are observed in the same situation, it will be seen that they swell up and become turgid, but their cell walls will keep them from lysing.

  • Flaccid – When a cell has no turgor pressure, and exchanges water at a steady rate with the environment.
  • Plasmolyzed – When a cell loses all of its water, and becomes completely shriveled.
  • Hypotonic – A solution that is weaker, or has less dissolved solutes compared to another solution.
  • Hypertonic – A solution that has more dissolved solutes than another solution.


1. A large vegetable garden sits in a well fertilized open field. A gardener notices that the plants in the back corner of the garden have gotten droopy. The leaves are hanging from the stems and the stems themselves are falling over. What is wrong with the plants in the corner of the garden?
A. They need water.
B. They need nutrients.
C. They need sunlight.

Answer to Question #1
A is correct. Droopy, soft plants are a sign that the cells of the plant are not turgid. The flaccid cells have lost the water pressure that keeps them firm, and as such the entire plant suffers. To correct the condition, the gardener simply needs to water the soil. Adding water to the soil will create a hypotonic environment compared to the cells in the roots of the plants. Therefore, they will absorb water and pass it to the inner parts of the plant. The water travels up the plant, through capillary action, towards areas of less water. As the water reaches these areas, these cells also become turgid again, and the plants will again stand tall and firm.

2. In animals with bones, the bone material is created by specialized cells that create a special extracellular matrix. The matrix combines with various salts to create an extremely firm and rigid substance. The cells themselves exist between the rigid substances, in an isotonic environment. Which of the following is true?
A. The cells that create bones are secretory and turgid, all the time.
B. While bone is a hard substance, the cells that create and exist in it are flaccid.
C. Like plants, animals owe their rigid structure to turgid cells.

Answer to Question #2
B is correct. In order to be able to deposit new bone, there must be space between the previous bone laid down and the plasma membrane. If bone cells were turgid all the time, no new bone could be deposited and development would stop. While bone is extremely rigid, the cells that create it must not be turgid while they secrete new bone.

3. As a form of locomotion, an octopus sucks water into its mouth, and pushes a stream of pressured water through the siphon. This propels the octopus forward. Are the cells in the octopus turgid as well?
A. Yes
B. No
C. Only when the muscles are pressurizing the water

Answer to Question #3
B is correct. The cells of the octopus will remain in their normal state. A little pressure is probably exerted on the cells as the muscles squeeze the water out, but it is not turgor pressure. Turgor pressure is created by water pressure inside the cell pushing its way out. The cells in the octopus will remain osmotically balanced as it pushes water, therefore they will not be turgid.