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Biology LibreTexts

39.2B: Basic Principles of Gas Exchange

  • Page ID
    14025
  • The purpose of respiration is to perform gas exchange, a process that involves ventilation and perfusion and that relies on the laws of partial pressure.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Discuss how gas pressures influence the exchange of gases into and out of the body

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • The purpose of the respiratory system is to perform gas exchange.
    • Gases tend to equalize their pressure in two regions that are connected; in such a situation, the respective pressure of each gas is known as that gas’s ” partial pressure.”
    • A gas will move from an area where its partial pressure is higher to an area where its partial pressure is lower, and the greater the difference in pressure, the more rapidly the gases will move.
    • Ventilation is the movement of air into and out of the lungs, and perfusion is the flow of blood in the pulmonary capillaries. For gas exchange to be efficient, the volumes involved in ventilation and perfusion should be compatible.

    Key Terms

    • oxyhaemoglobin: the form of hemoglobin, loosely combined with oxygen, present in arterial and capillary blood
    • hemoglobin: iron-containing substance in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body; it consists of a protein (globulin) and heme (a porphyrin ring with iron at its center)
    • partial pressure: the pressure one component of a mixture of gases would contribute to the total pressure

    The purpose of the respiratory system is to perform gas exchange. Pulmonary ventilation provides air to the alveoli for this gas exchange process. At the respiratory membrane, where the alveolar and capillary walls meet, gases move across the membranes, with oxygen entering the bloodstream and carbon dioxide exiting. It is through this mechanism that blood is oxygenated and carbon dioxide, the waste product of cellular respiration, is removed from the body.

    In order to understand the mechanisms of gas exchange in the lung, it is important to understand the underlying principles of gases and their behavior. In addition to Boyle’s law, several other gas laws help to describe the behavior of gases.

    Gas Laws and Air Composition

    Gas molecules exert force on the surfaces with which they are in contact; this force is called pressure. In natural systems, gases are normally present as a mixture of different types of molecules. For example, the atmosphere consists of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and other gaseous molecules, and this gaseous mixture exerts a certain pressure referred to as atmospheric pressure (Table 2). Partial pressure (Px) is the pressure of a single type of gas in a mixture of gases. For example, in the atmosphere, oxygen exerts a partial pressure, and nitrogen exerts another partial pressure, independent of the partial pressure of oxygen (Figure 1). Total pressure is the sum of all the partial pressures of a gaseous mixture. Dalton’s law describes the behavior of nonreactive gases in a gaseous mixture and states that a specific gas type in a mixture exerts its own pressure; thus, the total pressure exerted by a mixture of gases is the sum of the partial pressures of the gases in the mixture.

    image

    Partial and total pressure of a gas: Partial pressure is the force exerted by a gas. The sum of the partial pressures of all the gases in a mixture equals the total pressure.

    Partial pressure is extremely important in predicting the movement of gases. Recall that gases tend to equalize their pressure in two regions that are connected. A gas will move from an area where its partial pressure is higher to an area where its partial pressure is lower. In addition, the greater the partial pressure difference between the two areas, the more rapid is the movement of gases.

    Solubility of Gases in Liquids

    Henry’s law describes the behavior of gases when they come into contact with a liquid, such as blood. Henry’s law states that the concentration of gas in a liquid is directly proportional to the solubility and partial pressure of that gas. The greater the partial pressure of the gas, the greater the number of gas molecules that will dissolve in the liquid. The concentration of the gas in a liquid is also dependent on the solubility of the gas in the liquid. For example, although nitrogen is present in the atmosphere, very little nitrogen dissolves into the blood, because the solubility of nitrogen in blood is very low. The exception to this occurs in scuba divers; the composition of the compressed air that divers breathe causes nitrogen to have a higher partial pressure than normal, causing it to dissolve in the blood in greater amounts than normal. Too much nitrogen in the bloodstream results in a serious condition that can be fatal if not corrected. Gas molecules establish an equilibrium between those molecules dissolved in liquid and those in air.

    The composition of air in the atmosphere and in the alveoli differs. In both cases, the relative concentration of gases is nitrogen > oxygen > water vapor > carbon dioxide. The amount of water vapor present in alveolar air is greater than that in atmospheric air (Table 3). Recall that the respiratory system works to humidify incoming air, thereby causing the air present in the alveoli to have a greater amount of water vapor than atmospheric air. In addition, alveolar air contains a greater amount of carbon dioxide and less oxygen than atmospheric air. This is no surprise, as gas exchange removes oxygen from and adds carbon dioxide to alveolar air. Both deep and forced breathing cause the alveolar air composition to be changed more rapidly than during quiet breathing. As a result, the partial pressures of oxygen and carbon dioxide change, affecting the diffusion process that moves these materials across the membrane. This will cause oxygen to enter and carbon dioxide to leave the blood more quickly.

    image

    Gas exchange: This illustrates the exchange of gas in humans between a capillary and an alveolus.

    Ventilation and Perfusion

    Two important aspects of gas exchange in the lung are ventilation and perfusion. Ventilation is the movement of air into and out of the lungs, and perfusion is the flow of blood in the pulmonary capillaries. For gas exchange to be efficient, the volumes involved in ventilation and perfusion should be compatible. However, factors such as regional gravity effects on blood, blocked alveolar ducts, or disease can cause ventilation and perfusion to be imbalanced.