Alveolar Gas Exchange

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    The whole point of breathing is to get gas exchange to occur between the blood and the air, so that oxygen can get into our tissues.  Another function of breathing is to release our gas waste product:  carbon dioxide.  All of this gas exchange occurs in the alveoli of the lungs.  That's where we are headed on this page!

    This figure from your book (Figure 19.16) depictsZoomed in on one alveolus to show its relationship to a pulmonary capillary and the direction of air exchange what it might look like if you cut through an alveolus and looked in from the cut edge.  You would see the simple squamous epithelium that lines the alveolus... that's for sure.  Can you see it in this picture?  The word "Air" is on top of one squamous cell, just to the right of its nucleus.   Another squamous cell was cut right through its nucleus, which can be seen under the oxygen arrow.  Sporadically interspersed with the squamous cells are the occasional surfactant-secreting cells.

    Another feature you would see in a cut alveolus is the capillary bed that runs around the outside of the entire structure.  The capillary bed is from arteriole to venule, and is depicted as running from top left, down and to the right, and reaching the venule at the top right.  Remember, pulmonary arterioles contain deoxyhemoglobin and are color coded in blue, while pulmonary venules contain oxyhemoglobin and are color coded in red.

    Consider what materials the bottom oxygen molecule (next to the surfactant-secreting cell) would encounter on its trip from the alveolus to the blood.   The oxygen atom would first have to travel through the alveolar epithelial cell.   My drawing of a respiratory membrane, composed of alveolar epithelial cell, basement membrane, and a capillary endothelial cellThen it would have to pass through any materials connecting the alveolar epithelium to the capillary.  And finally it would have to pass through the capillary wall; the capillary wall is only one, simple squamous cell (the endothelial cell) thick.  I have tried to show this for you in this little drawing.

    It is certainly not a lot of tissue that the gases have to travel through.  Only 2 cells thick (with a little extracellular material in between them, just the basement membrane).  This 2-cell-thick-material is called the respiratory membrane.

    Now lets look at the actual exchange.  We can use this figure (Figure 19.34) from your book to help...shows the partial pressures of oxygen and carbon dioxide gases at each end of the pulmonary capillary

    When blood first arrives at the pulmonary capillary at its arteriole end, the partial pressures of carbon dioxide and oxygen are:
PCO2 = 45 mm Hg
PO2 = 40 mm Hg
    These partial pressures need a bit more explanation.  You see, there's a lot of carbon dioxide in blood since all the waste carbon dioxide from the tissues of the body is in it.  You had seen that the partial pressure of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is much tinier than this.  Next, the partial pressure of oxygen is only 40 mm Hg in this blood; that is because much of the oxygen that we had in the blood left it while travelling all over the body.  You saw that the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere was 160 mm Hg, which is much higher than 40 mm Hg!

    What are the partial pressures of these gases in the alveolar space?   They are NOT the same as the atmospheric partial pressures.  Remember the terms "functional residual capacity" and "residual volume" from the volumes and capacities page?  These are the terms that describe the air that doesn't normally leave the respiratory tract.  Because the amount of air that never leaves the respiratory tract is so large (over a liter!), the spaces in the respiratory tract can never totally empty out and be completely replaced by atmospheric air.  So the alveolar air is a mixture of atmospheric air and functional residual capacity air.  Therefore, rather than the PCO2 being equal to .3 mm Hg, the PCO2 = 40 mm Hg.  That is a huge difference!  More than a hundred-fold difference.  And, rather than the PO2 being equal to 160 mm Hg, PO2 = 104 mm Hg.

    Once you understand that the partial pressures of the gases within the alveoli are not the same as their atmospheric partial pressures, you can understand what has to happen next.

Gas Partial Pressure in Blood Action Partial Pressure in Alveolar Space
Carbon Dioxide 45 mm Hg exitarrow pointing toward alveolus 40 mm Hg
Oxygen 40 mm Hg arrow pointing toward bloodenter blood 104 mm Hg

Carbon dioxide leaves the blood along its pressure gradient, while oxygen enters the blood along its pressure gradient.  When carbon dioxide leaves the blood, it enters the alveolar space and is exhaled into our environment.

2011 STCC Foundation Press
written by Dawn A. Tamarkin, Ph.D.