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Introducing the Systems of Gas Exchange

Introducing the Respiratory System

An X-ray on the left shows a dog heart, which appears as a white, oblong mass, surround by virtually transparent lung tissue. The photo on the right shows a dog.

Lungs, which appear as nearly transparent tissue surrounding the heart in this X-ray of a dog (left), are the central organs of the respiratory system. The left lung is smaller than the right lung to accommodate space for the heart. A dog’s nose (right) has a slit on the side of each nostril. When tracking a scent, the slits open, blocking the front of the nostrils. This allows the dog to exhale though the now-open area on the side of the nostrils without losing the scent that is being followed. (credit a: modification of work by Geoff Stearns; credit b: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

Breathing is an involuntary event. How often a breath is taken and how much air is inhaled or exhaled are tightly regulated by the respiratory center in the brain. Humans, when they aren’t exerting themselves, breathe approximately 15 times per minute on average. Canines, like the dog in the figure above, have a respiratory rate of about 15–30 breaths per minute. With every inhalation, air fills the lungs, and with every exhalation, air rushes back out. That air is doing more than just inflating and deflating the lungs in the chest cavity.

The air contains oxygen that crosses the lung tissue, enters the bloodstream, and travels to organs and tissues. Oxygen (O2) enters the cells where it is used for metabolic reactions that produce ATP, a high-energy compound. At the same time, these reactions release carbon dioxide (CO2) as a by-product. CO2 is toxic and must be eliminated. Carbon dioxide exits the cells, enters the bloodstream, travels back to the lungs, and is expired out of the body during exhalation.

Introducing the Systems of Gas Exchange

The primary function of the respiratory system is to deliver oxygen to the cells of the body’s tissues and remove carbon dioxide, a cell waste product. The main structures of the human respiratory system are the nasal cavity, the trachea, and lungs.

All aerobic organisms require oxygen to carry out their metabolic functions. Along the evolutionary tree, different organisms have devised different means of obtaining oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere. The environment in which the animal lives greatly determines how an animal respires. The complexity of the respiratory system is correlated with the size of the organism. As animal size increases, diffusion distances increase and the ratio of surface area to volume drops. In unicellular organisms, diffusion across the cell membrane is sufficient for supplying oxygen to the cell (the figure below). Diffusion is a slow, passive transport process. In order for diffusion to be a feasible means of providing oxygen to the cell, the rate of oxygen uptake must match the rate of diffusion across the membrane. In other words, if the cell were very large or thick, diffusion would not be able to provide oxygen quickly enough to the inside of the cell. Therefore, dependence on diffusion as a means of obtaining oxygen and removing carbon dioxide remains feasible only for small organisms or those with highly-flattened bodies, such as many flatworms (Platyhelminthes). Larger organisms had to evolve specialized respiratory tissues, such as gills, lungs, and respiratory passages accompanied by complex circulatory systems, to transport oxygen throughout their entire body.

The photo shows a round, green cell with a smooth, shiny surface. The cell resembles a balloon.The cell of the unicellular algae Ventricaria ventricosa is one of the largest known, reaching one to five centimeters in diameter. Like all single-celled organisms, V. ventricosa exchanges gases across the cell membrane.

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