Gas exchange

Gas exchange is a biological process through which different gases are transferred in opposite directions across a specialized respiratory surface. Gases are constantly required by, and produced as a by-product of, cellular and metabolic reactions, so an efficient system for their exchange is extremely important. It is linked with respiration in animals, and both respiration and photosynthesis in plants.[1]

In respiration, oxygen (O
) is required to enter cells, while waste carbon dioxide (CO
) must be excreted; the opposite is true for photosynthesis, in which CO
enters plants and O
is released.[1] The exchange of gases essentially occurs as a result of diffusion down a concentration gradient: gas molecules moving from an area of high concentration to low concentration.


Diffusion follows Fick’s Law. It is a passive process (no energy is required) affected by factors such as the surface area available, the distance the gas molecules must diffuse across and the concentration gradient.

Gases must first dissolve in a liquid in order to diffuse across a membrane, so all gas exchange systems require a moist environment.[2]

In single-celled organisms, diffusion can occur straight across the cell membrane; as organisms increase in size, so does the distance gases must travel across. (Their surface area-to-volume ratio also decreases.) Diffusion alone is not efficient enough and specialized respiratory systems are required. This is the case with humans and with fish that have evolved circulatory systems: these are able to transport the gases to and from the respiratory surface and maintain a continuous concentration gradient.[3]

In humans

Gas exchange in humans. Oxygen and carbon dioxide diffuse between a capillary and an alveolus.

Both oxygen and carbon dioxide are transported around the body in the blood through arteries, veins and capillaries. They bind to haemoglobin in red blood cells, although oxygen does so more effectively. Carbon dioxide also dissolves in the plasma or combines with water to form bicarbonate ions (HCO
). This reaction is catalyzed by the carbonic anhydrase enzyme in red blood cells.[4]

The main respiratory surface in humans is the alveoli,[5] which are small air sacs branching off from the bronchioles in the lungs. They are one cell thick and provide a moist and extremely large surface area for gas exchange to occur. Capillaries carrying deoxygenated blood from the pulmonary artery run across the alveoli. They are also extremely thin, so the total distance gases must diffuse across is only around 2 cells thick. An adult male has about 300 million alveoli, each ranging in diameter from 75 to 300 µm.

Inhaled oxygen is able to diffuse into the capillaries from the alveoli, while CO
from the blood diffuses in the opposite direction into the alveoli. The waste CO
can then be exhaled out of the body. Continuous blood flow in the capillaries and constant breathing maintain a steep concentration gradient.

Varying response

During physical exercise, excess carbon dioxide is produced as a result of increased respiration, and muscles and cells require increased oxygen. The body responds to this change by increasing the breathing rate, maximizing the rate of possible gas exchange.[6]

In plants

see adjacent text
High precision gas exchange measurements reveal important information on plant physiology

Gas exchange in plants is dominated by the roles of carbon dioxide and water vapor. CO
is the only carbon source for autotrophic organisms, making it essential for the conversion of light into sugar during photosynthesis. Due to the high differences in water potential in the plant versus the surrounding air, water vapor tends to evaporate from plants. Gas exchange is mediated through pores (known as stomata and located mainly on the lower side of leaves) that underlie a complex regulatory system. As the condition of the stomata unavoidably influences both the CO
and water vapor exchanges, plants experience a gas exchange dilemma: gaining enough CO
without losing too much water.[7]

Gas exchange measurements are common tools in plant science. If the environmental conditions (humidity, CO
concentration, light and temperature) are fully controlled, the measurements of CO
uptake and water release reveal important information about the CO
assimilation and transpiration rates and the intercellular CO
concentration, which reveal important information about the photosynthetic condition of the plants.[8][9]

Oxygen, essential for respiration during the night, plays a minor role in plants' gas exchange as it is always present in sufficient amounts.

In fish

Fish must extract oxygen dissolved in water, not air, which has led to the evolution of gills and opercula. Gills are specialized organs containing filaments and lamellae: the lamellae contain capillaries and provide a large surface area and short diffusion distance, as they are extremely thin.[10]

Water is drawn in through the mouth and passes over the gills in one direction while blood flows through the lamellae in the opposite direction. This countercurrent maintains a steep concentration gradient. Oxygen is able to continually diffuse down its gradient into the blood, and the CO
into the water.[11]

Summary of main systems

Large surface area Short diffusion distance Maintained concentration gradient
Human Total alveoli = 70–100 m2[12] Alveolus and capillary (two cells) Constant blood flow in capillaries; breathing
Fish Many lamellae and filaments per gill Usually one cell Countercurrent flow
Plant High density of stomata; air spaces within leaf One cell Constant air flow

Other examples

Insects such as crickets do not have an inner skeleton, so they exchange gases across structures known as trachea and tracheoles: tubes that run directly into the insect's body. Air enters the trachea through spiracles and diffuses into the respiring tissues.[13]

Amphibians are able to use their skin as a respiratory surface. They also have lungs and sometimes gills can be used.

See also


  1. 1 2 "Gas exchange". Retrieved 19 March 2013.
  2. Piiper J, Dejours P, Haab P & Rahn H (1971). "Oncepts and basic quantities in gas exchange physiology". Respiration Physiology. 13: 292–304. doi:10.1016/0034-5687(71)90034-x.
  3. Kety SS (1951). "The theory and applications of the exchange of inert gas at the lungs and tissues". Pharmacological Reviews. 3: 1–41.
  4. Raymond H & Swenson E (2000). "The distribution and physiological significance of carbonic anhydrase in vertebrate gas exchange organs". Respiration physiology. 121: 1–12. doi:10.1016/s0034-5687(00)00110-9.
  5. "Gas Exchange in humans". Retrieved 19 March 2013.
  6. Wasserman K, Whipp B, Koyal S & Beaver W (1973). "Anaerobic threshold and respiratory gas exchange during exercise". Journal of Applied Physiology. 35.
  7. K. Raschke (1976). "How Stomata Resolve the Dilemma of Opposing Priorities". Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B. 273: 551–560.
  8. S Von Caemmerer; GD Farquhar (1981). "Some relationships between the biochemistry of photosynthesis and gas exchange of leaves". Planta. 153: 376–387.
  9. Portable Gas Exchange Fluorescence System GFS-3000. Handbook of Operation (PDF), March 20, 2013
  10. Newstead James D (1967). "Fine structure of the respiratory lamellae of teleostean gills". Cell and Tissue Research. 79: 396–428. doi:10.1007/bf00335484.
  11. Hughes GM (1972). "Morphometrics of fish gills". Respiration physiology. 14: 1–25. doi:10.1016/0034-5687(72)90014-x.
  12. Basset J, Crone C, Saumon G (1987). "Significance of active ion transport in transalveolar water absorption: a study on isolated rat lung". The Journal of physiology. 384: 311–324.
  13. "Gas Exchange in Insects". Retrieved 19 March 2013.

External links

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