Levels of Organization

Unit 2: The Chemistry of Water

Learning Objectives

At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

I. Explain the biological importance of water.

II. Specify the percentage of body weight that is composed of water and estimate the amount of body water you contain in litres.

III. Describe the distribution of body water.

Learning Objectives and Guiding Questions

At the end of this unit, you should be able to complete all the following tasks, including answering the guiding questions associated with each task.

I. Explain the biological importance of water.

  1. For each of the four biologically important properties of water:
    • Identify the property.
    • Describe its importance in the human body.

II. Specify the percentage of body weight that is composed of water and estimate the amount of body water you contain in litres.

  1. Given your (approximate) body weight, calculate the amount of water you contain, in litres. You may use a calculator if necessary, but must clearly show all your work!

III. Describe the distribution of body water.

  1. For each of the major fluid compartments of the human body:
    • Name the compartment.
    • Define the compartment by specifying its location in the human body.
    • Specify the percentage of body fluid volume made up by that compartment.


As much as 70 percent of a human’s body weight is water. This water is contained both within the cells and between the cells that make up tissues and organs. Its several roles make water indispensable to human functioning.

Part 1. Biological Importance of Water

Water as a Lubricant and Cushion

Water is a major component of many of the body’s lubricating fluids. Just as oil lubricates the hinge on a door, water in synovial fluid lubricates the actions of body joints, and water in pleural fluid helps the lungs expand and recoil with breathing. Watery fluids help keep food flowing through the digestive tract, and ensure that the movement of adjacent abdominal organs is friction free.

Water also protects cells and organs from physical trauma, cushioning the brain within the skull, for example, and protecting the delicate nerve tissue of the eyes. Water cushions a developing fetus in the mother’s womb as well.

Water as a Heat Sink

A heat sink is a substance or object that absorbs and dissipates heat but does not experience a corresponding increase in temperature. In the body, water absorbs the heat generated by chemical reactions without greatly increasing in temperature. Moreover, when environmental temperature soars, the water stored in the body helps keep the body cool. This cooling effect happens as warm blood from the body’s core flows to the blood vessels just under the skin and is transferred out to the environment as radiant heat. At the same time, sweat glands release warm water in sweat. For evaporation of this water to occur, the hydrogen bonds between the water molecules must be broken, requiring a relatively high amount of energy that in part includes heat. This removal of heat by evaporation results in a cooling of the blood in the body’s periphery, near the surface of the skin, which then circulates back to the body core and cools the body.

Water as a Component of Liquid Mixtures

A mixture is a combination of two or more substances, each of which maintains its own chemical identity. In other words, the constituent substances are not chemically bonded into a new, larger chemical compound. The concept is easy to imagine if you think of powdery substances such as flour and sugar; when you stir them together in a bowl, they obviously do not bond to form a new compound. The room air you breathe is a gaseous mixture, containing argon, molecules of nitrogen and oxygen, and one compound— carbon dioxide.

For cells in the body to survive, they must be kept moist in a water-based liquid called a solution. In chemistry, a liquid solution consists of a solvent that dissolves a substance called a solute. An important characteristic of solutions is that they are homogeneous; that is, the solute molecules are distributed evenly throughout the solution. If you were to stir a teaspoon of sugar into a glass of water, the sugar would dissolve into sugar molecules separated by water molecules. The ratio of sugar to water in the left side of the glass would be the same as the ratio of sugar to water in the right side of the glass. If you were to add more sugar, the ratio of sugar to water would change, but the distribution—provided you had stirred well—would still be even.

The Role of Water in Chemical Reactions

Two types of chemical reactions involve the creation or the consumption of water: dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis.

  • In dehydration synthesis, one reactant gives up an atom of hydrogen and another reactant gives up a hydroxyl group (OH) in the synthesis of a new product. In the formation of their covalent bond, a molecule of water is released as a byproduct (Figure 1). This is also sometimes referred to as a condensation reaction.
  • In hydrolysis, a molecule of water disrupts a compound, breaking its bonds. The water is itself split into H and OH. One portion of the severed compound then bonds with the hydrogen atom, and the other portion bonds with the hydroxyl group.

These reactions are reversible, and play an important role in the chemistry of organic compounds (which will be discussed shortly).

Figure 1. Dehydration Synthesis and Hydrolysis.  Monomers, the basic units for building larger molecules, form polymers (two or more chemically-bonded monomers). (a) In dehydration synthesis, two monomers are covalently bonded in a reaction in which one gives up a hydroxyl group and the other a hydrogen atom. A molecule of water is released as a byproduct during dehydration reactions. (b) In hydrolysis, the covalent bond between two monomers is split by the addition of a hydrogen atom to one and a hydroxyl group to the other, which requires the contribution of one molecule of water.

Part 2. Fluid Compartments in the Human Body

Body Water Content

Human beings are mostly water, ranging from about 75 percent of body mass in infants to as low as 45 percent in old age. In adults, the average percent of body mass in women is 50 percent, whereas in men the average is 60 percent. The percent of body water changes with development, because the proportions of the body given over to each organ and to muscles, fat, bone, and other tissues change from infancy to adulthood (Figure 2).

Fluid Compartments

Body fluids can be discussed in terms of their specific fluid compartment, a location that is largely separate from another compartment by some form of a physical barrier. The intracellular fluid (ICF) compartment is the system that includes all fluid enclosed in cells by their plasma membranes. Extracellular fluid (ECF) surrounds all cells in the body. Extracellular fluid has two primary constituents: the fluid component of the blood (called plasma) and the interstitial fluid (IF) that surrounds all cells not in the blood (Figure 3).

1. Intracellular Fluid: The intracellular fluid lies within cells and is the principal component of the cytosol/cytoplasm. The intracellular fluid makes up more than half, about 55%,  of the total water in the human body, accounting for about 20 litres in an average adult human (Figure 4). This fluid volume tends to be very stable, because the amount of water in living cells is closely regulated. If the amount of water inside a cell falls to a value that is too low, the cytosol becomes too concentrated with solutes to carry on normal cellular activities; if too much water enters a cell, the cell may burst and be destroyed.

2. Extracellular Fluid: The extracellular fluid accounts for the remainder of the body’s water content. Approximately 16% of the extracellular fluid is found in plasma. Plasma travels through the body in blood vessels and transports a range of materials, including blood cells, proteins (including clotting factors and antibodies), electrolytes, nutrients, gases, and wastes. Gases, nutrients, and waste materials travel between capillaries and cells through the interstitial fluid. Interstitial fluid is the fluid surrounding living cells in every tissue, and accounts for nearly 80% of the extracellular fluid.Cells are separated from the interstitial fluid by a selectively permeable cell membrane that helps regulate the passage of materials between the interstitial fluid and the interior of the cell.

The body has other water-based extracellular fluid. These include the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord, lymph, the synovial fluid in joints, the pleural fluid in the pleural cavities, the pericardial fluid in the cardiac sac, the peritoneal fluid in the peritoneal cavity, and the aqueous humor of the eye. Because these fluids are outside cells, these fluids are also considered components of the extracellular fluid compartment.

Figure 2. Water Content of the Body’s Organs and Tissues. Water content varies in different body organs and tissues, from as little as 8 percent in the teeth to as much as 85 percent in the brain.
Figure 3. Fluid Compartments in the Human Body. The intracellular fluid (ICF) is the fluid within cells. The interstitial fluid (IF) is part of the extracellular fluid (ECF) between the cells. Blood plasma is the second part of the extracellular fluid. Materials travel between cells and the plasma in capillaries through the interstitial fluid.
Figure 4. Proportions of Total Body Fluid in Each of the Body’s Fluid Compartments. Most of the water in the body is intracellular fluid. The second largest volume is the interstitial fluid, which surrounds cells that are not blood cells.
Watch this Amoeba Sisters’ video to learn more about the properties of water! Direct link: https://youtu.be/3jwAGWky98c


Watch this CrashCourse video to learn more about the importance of water and its chemical properties. Direct link: https://youtu.be/HVT3Y3_gHGg

Practice Questions

Part 1. Biological importance of water

Part 2. Fluid compartments in the human body




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Douglas College Human Anatomy & Physiology I (2nd ed.) Copyright © 2019 by Douglas College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book