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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 ( [link] ). 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.

Composition and Partial Pressures of Alveolar Air
Gas Percent of total composition Partial pressure
(mm Hg)
Nitrogen (N 2 ) 74.9 569
Oxygen (O 2 ) 13.7 104
Water (H 2 O) 6.2 40
Carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) 5.2 47
Total composition/total alveolar pressure 100% 760.0

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.

The partial pressure of oxygen in alveolar air is about 104 mm Hg, whereas the partial pressure of the oxygenated pulmonary venous blood is about 100 mm Hg. When ventilation is sufficient, oxygen enters the alveoli at a high rate, and the partial pressure of oxygen in the alveoli remains high. In contrast, when ventilation is insufficient, the partial pressure of oxygen in the alveoli drops. Without the large difference in partial pressure between the alveoli and the blood, oxygen does not diffuse efficiently across the respiratory membrane. The body has mechanisms that counteract this problem. In cases when ventilation is not sufficient for an alveolus, the body redirects blood flow to alveoli that are receiving sufficient ventilation. This is achieved by constricting the pulmonary arterioles that serves the dysfunctional alveolus, which redirects blood to other alveoli that have sufficient ventilation. At the same time, the pulmonary arterioles that serve alveoli receiving sufficient ventilation vasodilate, which brings in greater blood flow. Factors such as carbon dioxide, oxygen, and pH levels can all serve as stimuli for adjusting blood flow in the capillary networks associated with the alveoli.

Ventilation is regulated by the diameter of the airways, whereas perfusion is regulated by the diameter of the blood vessels. The diameter of the bronchioles is sensitive to the partial pressure of carbon dioxide in the alveoli. A greater partial pressure of carbon dioxide in the alveoli causes the bronchioles to increase their diameter as will a decreased level of oxygen in the blood supply, allowing carbon dioxide to be exhaled from the body at a greater rate. As mentioned above, a greater partial pressure of oxygen in the alveoli causes the pulmonary arterioles to dilate, increasing blood flow.

Questions & Answers

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