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Adv Anat Embryol Cell Biol. 2002;163:III-XII, 1-108.

Fundamental structural aspects and features in the bioengineering of the gas exchangers: comparative perspectives.


Over its life, an organism's survival and success are determined by the inventory of vital adaptations that its progenitors have creatively appropriated, devised and harnessed along the evolutionary pathway. Such conserved attributes provide the armamentarium necessary for withstanding the adverse effects of natural selection. Refinements of the designs of the respiratory organs have been critical for survival and phylogenetic advancement of animal life. Gas exchangers have changed in direct response to the respiratory needs of whole organisms in different environmental states and conditions. Nowhere else is the dictum that in biology 'there are no rules but only necessities' more manifest than in the evolutionary biology of the gas exchangers. The constructions have been continually fashioned and refined to meet specific needs. Solutions to common respiratory needs have been typified by profound structural convergence. Over the evolutionary continuum, as shifts in environmental situations occurred, infinitely many designs should theoretically have emerged. Moreover, without specific selective pressures and preference for certain designs, considering that there are only two naturally occurring respirable fluid media (air and water), air-lungs, water-lungs, air-gills and water-gills would have formed to similar extents. Factors such as body size, phylogenetic level of development, respiratory medium utilized and habitats occupied have permutatively prescribed the design of the gas exchangers. The construction of the modern gas exchangers has eventuated through painstaking cost-benefit analysis. Trade-offs and compromises have decreed only a limited number of structurally feasible and functionally competent outcomes. The morphological congruity (analogy) of the gas exchangers indicates that similar selective pressures have compelled the designs. Solutions to metabolic demands for molecular O2 have only differed in details. Passive physical diffusion, for example, is the ubiquitous method of transfer of O2 across biological tissues. Gills, evaginated gas exchangers, were the primordial respiratory organs that evolved for water breathing, whereas lungs (invaginated gas exchangers) developed for terrestrial (air) breathing. Transitional (= bimodal = amphibious) breathing has evolved in animals with specialized organs that extract O2 from both water and air. Lungs are tidally (= bidirectionally) ventilated, while gills are unidirectionally ventilated, a feature that allows the highly efficient counter-current disposition between blood and water. Since animals occupy inconstant environmental milieus and their metabolic states vary, gas exchangers are designed to operate optimally across a spectrum of conditions that range from resting to exercise and even under hypoxia. Inbuilt structural and functional flexibility provides the requisite safety factors that allow adjustments to modest pressures. The fundamental structural features that determine the respiratory function of a gas exchanger are respiratory surface area, thickness of the blood-water/gas (tissue) barrier and volume of the pulmonary capillary blood. The diffusing capacity of a gas exchanger correlates directly with the surface area and inversely with the thickness of the blood-water/gas (tissue) barrier. An extensive surface area is generated in gills by extensive stratification of the gas exchanger and in lungs by profuse internal subdivision. Compartmentalization yields small terminal gas exchange compartments that compel greater commitment of energy to ventilate. The surfactant, a phospholipid lining, reduces the forces of surface tension at the air-water interface. This attenuates the propensity of physical collapse of the minute gas exchange units and minimizes the cost of ventilation. The surfactant characterizes all the gas exchangers derived from the piscine air bladder. In the lower air-breathing vertebrates, such as the lungfishes (Dipnoi), amphibians and certain reptiles, the pneumocytes are not differentiated into type I and II cells, as is the case in the lungs of the higher vertebrates-birds and mammals. It is envisaged that in endotherms, the overall numerical density of the pneumocytes and hence the O2 consumption of the gas exchangers may be reduced and a thin blood-gas (tissue) barrier generated, factors that enhance respiratory efficiency. The thin blood-gas (tissue) barriers, for example, those of the mammalian (in the respiratory sections of the interalveolar septum) and avian lungs, consist of an epithelial cell and an endothelial cell with a common basement membrane. An interstitial space occurs in the blood-air/water (tissue) barriers of the gas exchangers of fish gills and lungs of lungfishes, amphibians, reptiles and in the supportive parts of the interalveolar septum of the mammalian lung. Collagen, elastic tissue, nerves, lymphatic vessels and smooth muscle elements are found in the interstitial space. The thickness of the blood-air/water (tissue) barrier allometrically changes very little. This suggests that the thicknesses of the blood-water/air (tissue) barriers have been optimized. The presentation and exposure to the gas exchange media (water/air to blood), features dictated by the geometry and arrangements of the structural components of the gas exchangers, contribute greatly to respiratory efficiency. The countercurrent presentation between water and blood in fish gills is the most efficient design in the evolved gas exchangers: It was imperative for survival in water, a medium that contains relatively less O2 and is more expensive to breathe. In the evolved vertebrate gas exchangers, the exposure of blood to air is best manifested in the diffuse design of the avian lung, where the capillary blood is literally suspended in a three-dimensional air space, the blood being exposed to air virtually across the entire blood-gas (tissue) barrier. A double capillary design occurs in the lungs of amphibians and generally those of reptiles, whereas a single capillary design commonly occurs in those of adult mammals. The capillary loading (the ratio of the volume of the capillary blood to the surface area across which blood is exposed to air) in lungs with a double capillary arrangement is high and manifests a poor design. On the other hand, the low capillary loading that characterizes the single capillary system indicates better exposure of blood to air and greater respiratory capacity. Fractal geometry features in the construction of the gas exchangers. The highly versatile design allows the gas exchangers to function optimally under different conditions and circumstances and to maintain congruent morphologies over a wide range of body size, shape and metabolic capacities. At the gas exchange level, sheet-flow design preponderates in the evolved gas exchangers; blood is efficiently exposed to the external respiratory medium. The respiratory capacity of a gas exchanger is comprehensively granted by refinements of structural features and functional processes. Modelling, mathematical integration of structural and functional parameters, provides a holistic view of the essence of the design of a gas exchanger.

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