Lungs: Bronchi and Alveoli

The end of the trachea bifurcates (divides) to the right and left lungs. The lungs are not identical. The right lung is larger and contains three lobes, whereas the smaller left lung contains two lobes (Figure 20.9). The muscular diaphragm, which facilitates breathing, is inferior (below) to the lungs and marks the end of the thoracic cavity.

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Figure 20.9.  The trachea bifurcates into the right and left bronchi in the lungs. The right lung is made of three lobes and is larger. To accommodate the heart, the left lung is smaller and has only two lobes.

In the lungs, air is diverted into smaller and smaller passages, or bronchi. Air enters the lungs through the two primary (main) bronchi (singular: bronchus). Each bronchus divides into secondary bronchi, then into tertiary bronchi, which in turn divide, creating smaller and smaller diameter bronchioles as they split and spread through the lung. Like the trachea, the bronchi are made of cartilage and smooth muscle. At the bronchioles, the cartilage is replaced with elastic fibers. Bronchi are innervated by nerves of both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems that control muscle contraction (parasympathetic) or relaxation (sympathetic) in the bronchi and bronchioles, depending on the nervous system’s cues. In humans, bronchioles with a diameter smaller than 0.5 mm are the respiratory bronchioles. They lack cartilage and therefore rely on inhaled air to support their shape. As the passageways decrease in diameter, the relative amount of smooth muscle increases.

The terminal bronchioles subdivide into microscopic branches called respiratory bronchioles. The respiratory bronchioles subdivide into several alveolar ducts. Numerous alveoli and alveolar sacs surround the alveolar ducts. The alveolar sacs resemble bunches of grapes tethered to the end of the bronchioles (Figure 20.10). In the acinar region, the alveolar ducts are attached to the end of each bronchiole. At the end of each duct are approximately 100 alveolar sacs, each containing 20 to 30 alveoli that are 200 to 300 microns in diameter. Gas exchange occurs only in alveoli. Alveoli are made of thin-walled parenchymal cells, typically one-cell thick, that look like tiny bubbles within the sacs. Alveoli are in direct contact with capillaries (one-cell thick) of the circulatory system. Such intimate contact ensures that oxygen will diffuse from alveoli into the blood and be distributed to the cells of the body. In addition, the carbon dioxide that was produced by cells as a waste product will diffuse from the blood into alveoli to be exhaled. The anatomical arrangement of capillaries and alveoli emphasizes the structural and functional relationship of the respiratory and circulatory systems. Because there are so many alveoli (~300 million per lung) within each alveolar sac and so many sacs at the end of each alveolar duct, the lungs have a sponge-like consistency. This organization produces a very large surface area that is available for gas exchange. The surface area of alveoli in the lungs is approximately 75 m2. This large surface area, combined with the thin-walled nature of the alveolar parenchymal cells, allows gases to easily diffuse across the cells.

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Figure 20.10.
Terminal bronchioles are connected by respiratory bronchioles to alveolar ducts and alveolar sacs. Each alveolar sac contains 20 to 30 spherical alveoli and has the appearance of a bunch of grapes. Air flows into the atrium of the alveolar sac, then circulates into alveoli where gas exchange occurs with the capillaries. Mucous glands secrete mucous into the airways, keeping them moist and flexible. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

Protective Mechanisms

The air that organisms breathe contains particulate matter such as dust, dirt, viral particles, and bacteria that can damage the lungs or trigger allergic immune responses. The respiratory system contains several protective mechanisms to avoid problems or tissue damage. In the nasal cavity, hairs and mucus trap small particles, viruses, bacteria, dust, and dirt to prevent their entry.

If particulates do make it beyond the nose, or enter through the mouth, the bronchi and bronchioles of the lungs also contain several protective devices. The lungs produce mucus—a sticky substance made of mucin, a complex glycoprotein, as well as salts and water—that traps particulates. The bronchi and bronchioles contain cilia, small hair-like projections that line the walls of the bronchi and bronchioles (Figure 20.11). These cilia beat in unison and move mucus and particles out of the bronchi and bronchioles back up to the throat where it is swallowed and eliminated via the esophagus.

In humans, for example, tar and other substances in cigarette smoke destroy or paralyze the cilia, making the removal of particles more difficult. In addition, smoking causes the lungs to produce more mucus, which the damaged cilia are not able to move. This causes a persistent cough, as the lungs try to rid themselves of particulate matter, and makes smokers more susceptible to respiratory ailments.

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Figure 20.11. The bronchi and bronchioles contain cilia that help move mucus and other particles out of the lungs. (credit: Louisa Howard, modification of work by Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility)


Animal respiratory systems are designed to facilitate gas exchange. In mammals, air is warmed and humidified in the nasal cavity. Air then travels down the pharynx, through the trachea, and into the lungs. In the lungs, air passes through the branching bronchi, reaching the respiratory bronchioles, which house the first site of gas exchange. The respiratory bronchioles open into the alveolar ducts, alveolar sacs, and alveoli. Because there are so many alveoli and alveolar sacs in the lung, the surface area for gas exchange is very large. Several protective mechanisms are in place to prevent damage or infection. These include the hair and mucus in the nasal cavity that trap dust, dirt, and other particulate matter before they can enter the system. In the lungs, particles are trapped in a mucus layer and transported via cilia up to the esophageal opening at the top of the trachea to be swallowed.

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