Renal Handling of Urea

July 22, 2017 Laboratory Medicine, Nephrology, Physiology and Pathophysiology, Urology No comments , , , , , , ,

Renal Handling of Urate

Urate, an anion that is the base form of uric acid, provides a fascinating example of the renal handling of organic anions that is particularly important for clinical medicine and is illustrative of renal pathology. An increase in the plasma concentration of urate can cause gout and is thought to be involved in some forms of heart disease and renal disease; therefore, its removal from the blood is important. However, instead of excreting all the urate it can, the kidneys actually reabsorb most of the filtered urate. Urate is freely filterable. Almost all the filtered rate is reabsorbed early in the proximal tubule, primarily via antiporters (URAT1) that exchange urate for another organic anion. Further on the proximal tubule urate undergoes active tubular secretion. Then, in the straight portion, some of the urate is once again reabsorbed. Because the total rate of reabsorption is normally much greater than the rate of secretion, only a small fraction of the filtered load is excreted.

Although urate reabsorption is greater than secretion, the secretory process is controlled to maintain relative constancy of plasma urate. In other words, if plasma urate begins to increase because of increased urate production, the active proximal secretion of urate is stimulated, thereby increasing urate excretion.

Given these mechanisms of renal urate handling, the reader should be able to deduce the 3 ways by which altered renal function can lead to decreased urate excretion and hence increased plasma urate, as in gout: 1) decreased filtration of urate secondary to decreased GFR, 2) excessive reabsorption of urate, and 3) diminished secretion of urate.

Urate, and some other organic solutes, although more membrane permeable in the neutral form, are less soluble in aqueous solution and tend to precipitate. The combination of excess plasma urate and low urinary pH, which converts urate to the neutral uric acid, often leads to the formation of uric acid kidney stones.

Renal Handling of Urea

Urea is a very special substance for the kidney. It is an end product of protein metabolism, waste to be excreted, and also an important component for the regulation of water excretion. Urea differs from all the other organic solutes in several significant ways. 1) There are no membrane transport mechanisms in the proximal tubule; instead, it easily permeates the tight junctions of the proximal tubule where it is reabsorbed paracellularly. 2) Tubular elements beyond the proximal tubule express urea transporters and handle urea in a complex, regulated manner.

Urea is derived from proteins, which form much of the functional and structural substance of body tissues. Proteins are also a source of metabolic fuel. Dietary protein is first digested into its constituent amino acids. These are then used as building blocks for tissue protein, converted to fat or oxidized immediately. During fasting, the body breaks down proteins into amino acids that are used as fuel, in essence consuming itself. The metabolism of amino acids yields a nitrogen moiety (ammonium) and a carbohydrate moiety. The carbohydrate goes on to further metabolic processing, but the ammonium cannot be further oxidized and is a waste product. Ammonium per se is rather toxic to most tissues and the liver immediately converts most ammonium to urea and a smaller, but crucial amount to glutamine. While normal levels of urea are not toxic, the large amounts produced on a daily basis, particularly on a high protein diet, represent a large osmotic load that must be excreted. Whether a person is well fed or fasting, urea production proceeds continuously and constitutes about half of the usual solute content of urine.

The normal level of urea in the blood is quite variable, reflecting variations in both protein intake and renal handling of urea. Over days to weeks, renal urea excretion must match hepatic production; otherwise plasma levels would increase into the pathological range producing a condition called uremia. On a short-term basis (hours to days), urea excretion rate may not exactly match production rate because urea excretion is also regulated for purposes other than keeping a stable plasma level.

The gist of the renal handling of urea is the following: it is freely filtered. About half is reabsorbed passively in the proximal tubule. Then an amount equal to that reabsorbed is secreted back into the loop of Henle. Finally, about half is reabsorbed a second time in the medullary collecting duct. The net result is that about half the filtered load is excreted.

pH Dependence of Passive Reabsorption or Secretion

Many of the organic solutes handled by the kidney are weak acids or bases and exist in both, neutral and ionized forms. The state of ionization affects both the aqueous solubility and membrane permeability of the substance. Neutral solutes are more permeable than ionized solutes. As water is reabsorbed from the tubule, any substance remaining in the tubule becomes progressively more concentrated. And the luminal pH may change substantially during flow through the tubules. Therefore, both the progressive concentration of organic solutes and change in pH strongly influence the degree to which they are reabsorbed by passive diffusion through regions of tubule beyond the proximal tubule.

At low pH weak acids are predominantly neutral, while at high pH they dissociate into an anion and a proton. Imagine the case in which the tubular fluid becomes acidified relative to the plasma, which it does on a typical Western diet. For a weak acid in the tubular fluid, acidification converts much of the acid to the neutral form and therefore, increases its permeability. This favors diffusion out of the lumen (reabsorption). Highly acidic urine tends to increase passive reabsorption of weak acids (and promote less excretion). For many weak bases, the pH dependence is just opposite. At low pH they are protonated cations. As the urine becomes acidified, more is converted to the impermeable charged form and is trapped in the lumen. Less is reabsorbed passively, and more is excreted.

Ammonia and Urea Cycle

July 20, 2017 Gastroenterology, Medicinal Chemistry, Nephrology, Physiology and Pathophysiology No comments , , , , ,

Ammonia (NH3) is a small metabolite that results predominantly from protein and amino acid degradation. It is highly membrane-permeant and readily crosses epithelial barriers in its nonionized form.

Ammonia does not have a physiologic function. However, it is important clinically because it is highly toxic to the nervous system. Because ammonia is being formed constantly from the deamination of amino acids derived from proteins, it is important that mechanisms exist to provide for the timely and efficient disposal fo this molecule. The liver is critical for ammonia catabolism because it is the only tissue in which all elements of the urea cycle, also known as the Krebs-Henseleit cycle, are expressed, providing for the conversion of ammonia to urea. Ammonia is also consumed in the synthesis of nonessential amino acids, and in various facets of intermediary metabolism.

Ammonia Formation and Disposition

Ammonia in the circulation originates in a number of different sites. A diagram showing the major contributors to ammonia levels is shown in 14-1. Note that the liver is efficient in taking up ammonia from the portal blood in health, leaving only approximately 15% to spill over into the systemic circulation.

Intestinal Production

The major contributor to plasma ammonia is the intestine, supplying about 50% of the plasma load. Intestinal ammonia is derived via two major mechanisms. First, ammonia is liberated from urea in the intestinal lumen by enzymes known as ureases. Ureases are not expressed by mammalian cells, but are products of many bacteria, and convert urea to ammonia and carbon dioxide. Indeed, this provides the basis for a common diagnostic test, since H. pylori, which colonizes the gastric lumen and has been identified as a cause of peptic ulcer disease, has a potent urease. Therefore, if patients are given a dose of urea labeled with carbon-13, rapid production of labeled carbon dioxide in the breath is suggestive of infection with this microorganism.

Second, after proteins are digested by either host or bacterial proteases, further breakdown of amino acids generates free ammonia. Ammonia in its unionized form crosses the intestinal epithelium freely, and enters the portal circulation to travel to the liver; however, depending on the pH of the colonic contents, a portion of the ammonia will be protonated to ammonium ion. Because the colonic pH is usually slightly acidic, secondary to the production of short-chain fatty acids, the ammonium is thereby trapped in the lumen and can be eliminated in the stool.

Extraintestinal Production

The second largest contributor to plasma ammonia levels is the kidney. Ammonia is also produced in the liver itself during the deamination of amino acids. Minor additional components of plasma ammonia derive from adenylic acid metabolism in muscle cells, as well as glutamine released from senescent red blood cells.

Urea Cycle

The most important site for ammonia catabolism is the liver, where the elements of the urea cycle are expressed in hepatocytes. Ammonia derived from the sources described earlier is converted in the mitochondria to carbamoyl phosphate, which in turn reacts with ornithine to generate citrulline. Citrulline, in turn, reacts in the cytosol with aspartate, produced by the deamination of glutarate, to yield sequentially arginine succinate then arginine itself. The enzyme arginase then dehydrates arginine to yield urea and ornithine, which returns to the mitochondria and can reenter the cycle to generate additional urea. The net reaction is the combination of two molecules of ammonia with one of carbon dioxide, yielding urea and water.

Urea Disposition

A “mass balance” for the disposition of ammonia and urea is presented in Figure 14-2. As a small molecule, urea can cross cell membranes readily. Likewise, it is filtered at the glomerulus and enters the urine. While urea can be passively reabsorbed across the renal tubule as the urine is concentrated, its permeability is less than that of water such that only approximately half of the filtered load can be reabsorbed. Because of this, the kidney serves as the site where the majority of the urea produced by the liver is excreted. However, some circulating urea may passively back diffuse into the gut, where it is acted on by bacterial ureases to again yield ammonia and (CO2?). Some of the ammonia generated is excreted in the form of ammonium ion; the remainder is again reabsorbed to the handled by the liver once more.

Urinary Concentration – The Medullary Osmotic Gradient

June 22, 2016 Anatomy, Critical Care, Hemodynamics, Histology, Nephrology, Physiology and Pathophysiology No comments , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The kidneys can produce a range of urine osmolalities depending on the levels of ADH. The production of hypo-osmotic urine is an understandable process: The tubules (particularly the thick ascending limb of Henle's loop) reabsorb relatively more solute than water, and the dilute fluid that remains in the lumen is excreted. The production of hyperosmotic urine is also straightfoward in that reabsorption of water from the lumen into a hyperosmotic interstitium concentrates that luminal fluid, leaving concentrated urine to be excreted.

The Mechanism to Generate Medullary Osmotic Gradient

There is a gradient of osmolality (hyperosmotic), increasing from a nearly iso-osmotic value at the corticomedullary border to a maximum of greater than 1000 mOsm/kg at the papilla. The peak osmolality is variable depending on dehydration or overhydration, where highest during periods of dehydration and lowest (approximately half of that during excess hydration) during excess hydration.

In the steady state there must be mass balance, that is, every substance that enters the medulla via tubule or blood vessel must leave the medulla via tubule or blood vessels. However, during development of the gradient there are transient accumulations of solute, and during washout of the gradient there are losses. To develop the osmotic gradient in the medullary interstitium, there must be deposition of solute in excess of water. It is reabsorption of sodium and chloride by the thick ascending limb in excess of water reabsorbed in the thin descending limbs that accomplishes this task. At the junction between the inner and outer medulla, the ascending limbs of all loops of Henle, whether long or short, turn into thick regions and remain thick all the way back until they reach the original Bowman's capsules. As they reabsorb solute without water and dilute the luminal fluid, they simultaneously add solute without water to the surrounding interstitium. This action of the thick ascending limb is absolutely essential and is the key to everything else that happens. If transport in the thick ascending limb is innhibited, the lumen is not diluted and the interstitium is not concentrated, and the urine becomes iso-osmotic.


  • For thick ascending limbs in the cortex, reabsorbed solute is taken up by abundant cortex blood flow so intersititum osmolality in the cortex approximately equal plasma
  • High concentratiion sodium level in outer medulla interstitium makes them diffuse into DVR and AVR
  • Hyperosmotic sodium in AVR can diffuse into nearby DVR – the countercurrent exchange

For those portions of the thick ascending limbs in the cortex, the reabsorbed solute simply mixes with material reabsorbed by the nearby proximal convoluted tubules. Because the cortex contains abundant peritubular capillaries and a hight blood flow, the reabsorbed material immediately moves into the vasculature and returns to the general circulation. However, in the medulla, the vascular anatomy is arranged differently and total blood flow is much lower. Solute that is reabsorbed and deposited in the outer medullary interstitium during the establishment of the osmotic gradient is not immediately removed, that is, it accumulates. The degree of accumulation before a steady state is reached is a function of the arrangement of the vasa recta, their permeability properties and the volume of blood flowing within them.

Imagine first a hypothetical situation of no blood flow. Sodium would accumulate in the outer medulla without limit, because there would be no way to remove it. But, of course the outer medulla is perfused with blood, as are all tissues. Blood enters and leaves the outer medulla through parallel bundles of descending and ascending vasa recta (DVR and AVR). These vessels are permeable to sodium. Therefore sodium enters the vasa recta driven by the rise in concentration in the surrounding interstitium. Sodium entering the ascending vessels returns to the general circulation, but sodium in the descending vessels is distributed deeper into the medulla, where it diffuses out across the endothelia of the vassa recta and the interbundle capillaries that they feed, thereby raising the sodim content throughout the medulla.

Later, the interbundle capillaries drain into ascending vasa recta that lie near descending vasa recta. The walls of the ascending vasa recta are fenestrated, allowing movment of water and small solutes between plasma and interstitium. As the sodium concentration of the medullary interstitium rises, blood in the ascending vessels also takes on an increasingly higher sodium concentration. However, blood entering the medulla always has a normal sodium concentration (approximtely 140 mEq/L). Accordingly, some of the sodium begins to re-circulate, diffusing out of ascending vessels and reentering nearbydescending vessels that contain less sodium (countercurrent exchange). So sodium is entering descending vasa recta from 2 sources – re-circulated sodium from the ascending vasa recta, and new sodium from the thick ascending limbs. Over time, everything reaches a steady state in which the amount of new sodium entering the interstitium from thick ascending limbs matches the amount of sodium leaving the interstitium in ascending vasa recta. At its peak, the concentration of sodium in the medulla may reach 300 mEq/L, more than double its value in the general circulation. Since sodium is accompanied by an anion, mostly chloride, the contribution of salt to the medullary osmolality is approximately 600 mOsm/kg.


  • While solute can accumulate without a major effect on renal volume, the amount of water in the medullary interstitium must remain nearly constant; otherwise the medulla would undergo significiant swelling or shrinking.
  • Because water is always being reabsorbed from the medullary tubules into the interstitium (from descending thin limbs and medullary colelcting ducts), that water movement must be matched by equal water movement from the interstitium to the vasculature.
  • Blood entering the medulla has passed through glomeruli, thereby concentrating the plasma proteins. While the overall osmotic content (osmolality) of this blood is essentially isosmotic with systemic plasma, its oncotic pressure is considerably higher.

The challenge for the kidneys is to prevent dilution of the hyperosmotic interstitium by water reabsorbed from the tubules and by water diffusing out of the iso-osmotic blood entering the medulla. The endotheial cells of descending vasa recta contain aquaporins. So water is drawn osmotically into the outer medullary interstitium by the high salt content in a manner similar to water being drawn out of tubular elements. At first glance it seems that this allows the undesired diluting effect to actually take place. But, of course, solute is also constantly being added from the nearby thick ascending limbs. The loss of water from descending vasa recta in the outer medulla serves the useful purpose of raising the osmolality of blood penetrating the inner medulla and decreasing its volume, thereby reducing the tendency to dilute the inner medullary interstitium. The ascending vasa recta have a fenestrated endothelium, allowing free movement of water and small solutes. Since the oncotic pressure is high, water entering the interstitium of the outer medulla from descending vasa recta is taken up by ascending vasa recta and removed from the medulla. In addition, water reabsorbed from tubular elements (descending thin limbs and collecting ducts) is also taken up by ascending vasa recta and removed, thereby preserving constancy of total medullary water content.

The magnitude of blood flow in the vasa recta is a crucial variable. The peak osmolality in the interstitium depends on the ratio of sodium pumping by the thick ascending limbs to blood flow in the vasa recta. If this ratio is high (meaning low blood flow), water from the isosmotic plasma entering the medulla in descending vasa recta does not dilute the hyperosmotic interstitium. In effect the "salt wins" and osmolality remains at a maximum. But in conditions of water excess, this ratio is very low (high blood flow) and the diluting effect of water diffusing out of descending vasa recta is considerable. In part the tendency to diulte is controlled by ADH (due to its vasoconstriction effect to limit the blood flow of DVR).


The peak osmolality in the renal papilla reaches over 1000 mOsm/kg. Approximately half of this is accounted for by sodium and chloride, and most of the rest is (500-600 mOsm/kg) accounted for by urea. Urea is a very special substance for the kidney. It is an end product of protein metabolism, waste to be excreted, and also an important component for the regulation of water excretion. For the handle of urea in the kidneys: 

1.There are no membrane transport mechanisms in the proximal tubule; instead, it easily permeates the tight junctions of the proximal tubule where it is reabsorbed paracellularly.

2.Tubular elements beyond the proximal tubule express urea transporters and handle urea in a complex, regulated manner.

The gist of the renal handling of urea is the following: it is freely filtered. About half is reabsorbed passively in the proximal tubule. Then an amount equal to that reabsorbed is secreted back into the loop of Henle. Finally, about half is reabsorbed a second time in the medullary collecting duct. The net result is that about half the filtered load is excreted.

Urea does not permeate lipid layer because of its highly polar nature, but a set of uniporters transport urea in various places beyond the proximal tubule and in other sites within the body. Because urea is freely filtered, the filtrate contains urea at a concentration identical to that in plasma. In the proximal tubule when water is reabsorbed, the urea concentation rises well above the plasma urea concentration, driving diffusion through the leaky tight junctions. Roughly, half the filtered load is reabsorbed in the proximal tubule by the by the paracellular route. As the tubular fluid enters the loop of Henle, about half the filtered urea remains, but the urea concentration has increased somewhat above its level in the filtrate because proportionally, more water than urea was reabsorbed. At this point, the process becomes fairly complicated.

The interstitium of the medulla has a considerably higher urea concentration than does plasma. The concentration increases from the outer to the inner medulla. Since the medullary interstitial urea concentration is greater than that in the tubular fluid entering the loop of Henle, there is a concentration gradient favoring secretion into the lumen. The tight junctions in the loop of Henle are no longer permeable, but the epithelial membranes of the thin regions of the Henle's loops express urea uniporters, members of the UT family. This permits secretion of urea into the tubule. In fact, the urea secreted from the medullary interstitium into the thin regions of the loop of Henle replaces the urea previously reabsorbed in the proximal tubule. Thus, when tubular fluid enters the thick ascending limb, the amount of urea in the lumen is at least as large as the filtered load. However, because about 80% of the filtered water has now been reabsorbed, the luminal urea concentration is now several times greater than in the plasma. Beginning with the thick ascending limb and continuing all the way to the inner medullary collecting ducts (through the distal tubule and cortical collecting ducts), the apical membrane urea permeability (and the tight junction permeability) is essentially zero. Therefore, an amount of urea roughly equal to the filtered load remains within the tubular lumen and flows from the cortical into the medullary collecting ducts.

During the transit through the cortical collecting ducts variable amounts of water are reabsorbed, significantly concentrating the urea.We indicated eariler that the urea concentration in the medullary interstitium is much greater than in plasma, but the luminal concentration in the medullary collecting ducts is even higher (up to 50 times its plasma value), so in the inner medulla the gradient now favors reabsorption and urea is reabsorbed a second time via another isoform of UT urea uniporter. It is this urea reabsorbed in the inner medulla that leads to the high medullary interstitial concentration, driving urea secretion into the thin regions of the loop of Henle.