The urine concentration process requires an osmolality gradient along the renal cortico-medullary axis, with highest values in the renal papilla. NaCl and urea are the major solutes in the renal inner medulla, concentrations of urea up to 500-600 mM are found in the rat renal papilla. Urea can diffuse across cell membranes and contributes to balance intracellular and extracellular osmotic equilibrium. However, urea has perturbing effects on enzyme activity, and in concentrations above 300 mM is toxic for renal cultured cells. There is increasing evidence that urea can induce cellular responses distinct from those due to NaCl and other non-permeable solutes, including upregulation of immediate-early genes (IEGs). Urea transport by epithelial and endothelial cells is important for intra-medullary urea recycling and preservation of high urea concentration in the inner medulla. Trans-cellular movement of urea in cells expressing urea transporters may influence intracellular levels of this solute and modulate urea-induced signaling pathways. Regulation of urea transporters expression and activity can therefore be viewed as one aspect of cellular adaptation to urea. We have identified tonicity-responsive transcription as one mechanism regulating expression of the urea transporter UT-A. The short-term and long-term effects of variable extracellular urea concentration on the function of renal cells remain still unclear.
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