BIO 301
Human Physiology


Respiratory System:

The exchange of gases (O2 & CO2) between the alveoli & the blood occurs by simple diffusion: O2 diffusing from the alveoli into the blood & CO2 from the blood into the alveoli. Diffusion requires a concentration gradient. So, the concentration (or pressure) of O2 in the alveoli must be kept at a higher level than in the blood & the concentration (or pressure) of CO2 in the alveoli must be kept at a lower lever than in the blood. We do this, of course, by breathing - continuously bringing fresh air (with lots of O2 & little CO2) into the lungs & the alveoli.

Breathing is an active process - requiring the contraction of skeletal muscles. The primary muscles of respiration include the external intercostal muscles (located between the ribs) and the diaphragm (a sheet of muscle located between the thoracic & abdominal cavities).

The external intercostals plus the diaphragm contract to bring about inspiration:

To exhale:

Intra-alveolar pressure during inspiration & expiration

As the external intercostals & diaphragm contract, the lungs expand. The expansion of the lungs causes the pressure in the lungs (and alveoli) to become slightly negative relative to atmospheric pressure. As a result, air moves from an area of higher pressure (the air) to an area of lower pressure (our lungs & alveoli). During expiration, the respiration muscles relax & lung volume descreases. This causes pressure in the lungs (and alveoli) to become slight positive relative to atmospheric pressure. As a result, air leaves the lungs.

The walls of alveoli are coated with a thin film of water & this creates a potential problem. Water molecules, including those on the alveolar walls, are more attracted to each other than to air, and this attraction creates a force called surface tension. This surface tension increases as water molecules come closer together, which is what happens when we exhale & our alveoli become smaller (like air leaving a balloon). Potentially, surface tension could cause alveoli to collapse and, in addition, would make it more difficult to 're-expand' the alveoli (when you inhaled). Both of these would represent serious problems: if alveoli collapsed they'd contain no air & no oxygen to diffuse into the blood &, if 're-expansion' was more difficult, inhalation would be very, very difficult if not impossible. Fortunately, our alveoli do not collapse & inhalation is relatively easy because the lungs produce a substance called surfactant that reduces surface tension.

Role of Pulmonary Surfactant

Lung cells that produce surfactant

Exchange of gases:

What is Partial Pressure?:

Partial Pressures of O2 and CO2 in the body (normal, resting conditions):

While in the alveolar capillaries, the diffusion of gasses occurs: oxygen diffuses from the alveoli into the blood & carbon dioxide from the blood into the alveoli.

Blood leaving the alveolar capillaries returns to the left atrium & is pumped by the left ventricle into the systemic circulation. This blood travels through arteries & arterioles and into the systemic, or body, capillaries. As blood travels through arteries & arterioles, no gas exchange occurs. Because of the differences in partial pressures of oxygen & carbon dioxide in the systemic capillaries & the body cells, oxygen diffuses from the blood & into the cells, while carbon dioxide diffuses from the cells into the blood. Blood leaving the systemic capillaries returns to the heart (right atrium) via venules & veins (and no gas exchange occurs while blood is in venules & veins). This blood is then pumped to the lungs (and the alveolar capillaries) by the right ventricle.

How are oxygen & carbon dioxide transported in the blood?

Because almost all oxygen in the blood is transported by hemoglobin, the relationship between the concentration (partial pressure) of oxygen and hemoglobin saturation (the % of hemoglobin molecules carrying oxygen) is an important one.

Hemoglobin saturation:

The relationship between oxygen levels and hemoglobin saturation is indicated by the oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation (saturation) curve (in the graph above). You can see that at high partial pressures of O2 (above about 40 mm Hg), hemoglobin saturation remains rather high (typically about 75 - 80%). This rather flat section of the oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve is called the 'plateau.'

Recall that 40 mm Hg is the typical partial pressure of oxygen in the cells of the body. Examination of the oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve reveals that, under resting conditions, only about 20 - 25% of hemoglobin molecules give up oxygen in the systemic capillaries. This is significant (in other words, the 'plateau' is significant) because it means that you have a substantial reserve of oxygen. In other words, if you become more active, & your cells need more oxygen, the blood (hemoglobin molecules) has lots of oxygen to provide

When you do become more active, partial pressures of oxygen in your (active) cells may drop well below 40 mm Hg. A look at the oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve reveals that as oxygen levels decline, hemoglobin saturation also declines - and declines precipitously. This means that the blood (hemoglobin) 'unloads' lots of oxygen to active cells - cells that, of course, need more oxygen.

Factors that affect the Oxygen-Hemoglobin Dissociation Curve:

The oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve 'shifts' under certain conditions. These factors can cause such a shift:

These factors change when tissues become more active. For example, when a skeletal muscle starts contracting, the cells in that muscle use more oxygen, make more ATP, & produce more waste products (CO2). Making more ATP means releasing more heat; so the temperature in active tissues increases. More CO2 translates into a lower pH. That is so because this reaction occurs when CO2 is released:

CO2 + H20 -----> H2CO3 -----> HCO3- + H+

& more hydrogen ions = a lower (more acidic) pH. So, in active tissues, there are higher levels of CO2, a lower pH, and higher temperatures. In addition, at lower PO2 levels, red blood cells increase production of a substance called 2,3-diphosphoglycerate. These changing conditions (more CO2, lower pH, higher temperature, & more 2,3-diphosphoglycerate) in active tissues cause an alteration in the structure of hemoglobin, which, in turn, causes hemoglobin to give up its oxygen. In other words, in active tissues, more hemoglobin molecules give up their oxygen. Another way of saying this is that the oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve 'shifts to the right' (as shown with the light blue curve in the graph below). This means that at a given partial pressure of oxygen, the percent saturation for hemoglobin with be lower. For example, in the graph below, extrapolate up to the 'normal' curve (green curve) from a PO2 of 40, then over, & the hemoglobin saturation is about 75%. Then, extrapolate up to the 'right-shifted' (light blue) curve from a PO2 of 40, then over, & the hemoglobin saturation is about 60%. So, a 'shift to the right' in the oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve (shown above) means that more oxygen is being released by hemoglobin - just what's needed by the cells in an active tissue!

Carbon dioxide - transported from the body cells back to the lungs as:

Control of Respiration

Your respiratory rate changes. When active, for example, your respiratory rate goes up; when less active, or sleeping, the rate goes down. Also, even though the respiratory muscles are voluntary, you can't consciously control them when you're sleeping. So, how is respiratory rate altered & how is respiration controlled when you're not consciously thinking about respiration?

The rhythmicity center of the medulla:

Apneustic center (located in the pons) - stimulate I neurons (to promote inspiration)

Pneumotaxic center (also located in the pons) - inhibits apneustic center & inhibits inspiration

Factors involved in increasing respiratory rate

Heavy exercise ==> greatly increases respiratory rate


Related links:

Gas Exchange I

Inspiration and Expiration

The Respiratory System

Respiratory System

Introduction to Anatomy: Respiratory System

The Human Respiratory System

Structure and Function of the Lung

Gas Exchange in Humans

Back to BIO 301 syllabus

Lecture Notes 1 - Cell Structure & Metabolism

Lecture Notes 2 - Neurons & the Nervous System I

Lecture Notes 2b - Neurons & the Nervous System II

Lecture Notes 3 - Muscle

Lecture Notes 4 - Blood & Body Defenses I

Lecture Notes 4b - Blood & Body Defenses II

Lecture Notes 5 - Cardiovascular System