Because of the vast number of cellular processes sensitive to changes in pH, the control of intracellular pH (pHi) is of vital importance both for the individual cell and for the organism as a whole. The fundamental problem that pHiregulating mechanisms must address is the chronic tendency toward intracellular acidification. Depending on the conditions of incubation, a chronic intracellular acid load can be imposed by cellular metabolism. However, a nearly universal source of chronic acid loading are the fluxes across the cell membrane of H+ and of ionized weak acids and bases. Consider a cell having a transmembrane voltage (Vm) of -60 mV (cell negative) and an extracellular pH (pHo) of 7.4. The Nernst equation predicts that pHi would be ∼ 6.4 if H+ were in electrochemical equilibrium across the cell membrane. Because the actual pHi is nearly a full pH unit higher, there is a substantial gradient favoring the influx of H+, and one of equal magnitude favoring the efflux of OH. It can be shown (see Section 4.1) that the anionic, conjugate weak base (e.g., HCO3 ) of any neutral weak acid (e.g., CO2) is influenced by the same electrochemical gradient as that for OH, provided the neutral weak acid is equilibrated across the cell membrane. Similarly, the electrochemical gradient for any cationic conjugate weak acid (e.g., NH4 + ) of a neutral weak base (e.g., NH3) is the same as that for H+, provided the neutral weak base is in equilibrium across the cell membrane. Thus, the passive fluxes of H+, and of ionized weak acids or bases will all produce a chronic intracellular acid load. The gradual fall of pHi toward its equilibrium value (i.e., ∼ 6.4 in this example) can be forestalled only by an active-transport process that extrudes acid from the cell at a rate equal to the total rate of acid accumulation.


Acid Load Frog Skeletal Muscle Squid Axon Snail Neurone Buffer Power 
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© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Walter F. Boron
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhysiologyYale University School of MedicineNew HavenUSA

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