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Acta Anat (Basel). 1997;159(1):30-41.

Anchoring and support system of pulmonary gas-exchange tissue in four bird species.

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  • 1Department of Morphology, University of Antwerp (RUCA), Belgium.


Avian air capillaries are delicate structures compared to the mammalian pulmonary alveolus. A transmission and scanning electron microscopic study was carried out on several species of birds with the aim of determining the support structures of the avian gas-exchange mantle. Lung tissue of two bird species belonging to strong flying birds (pigeon and barn owl) and two relatively flightless species (domestic fowl and quail) was subjected to standard processing for transmission and scanning electron microscopy after intratracheal inflation. Twisted profiles of lipoproteinaceous trilaminar substance as specific secretory product of avian squamous respiratory cells can be seen in the cell body and cytoplasmic extensions that are wedged between the blood capillaries, partly surrounding them. The intracytoplasmatically located trilaminar complexes form a three-dimensional intricate spiderweb-like system between the blood capillaries and air capillaries, which presumably function as an anchoring and support structure of the gas-exchange tissue. This system is strengthened by retinacula--pairs of attenuated parallel processes of squamous respiratory cells that project to the airway lumen--expanding and bridging the opposite side of air capillaries. The trilaminar substance is discharged in the form of a 15-nm-thick acellular lining layer which is uniquely adapted to the extremely thin respiratory epithelium. The trilaminar substance arises in the cytoplasm of squamous respiratory cells from profiles of granular and smooth endoplasmic reticulum. The integrity and stability of the gas-exchange tissue is likely to be guaranteed by a specific arrangement of the squamous respiratory cells, in which the trilaminar substance plays a paramount role. This general pattern can be observed in strong flying bird species as in the relatively flightless birds.

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