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3.1 – Gas Transport

The content of this chapter was adapted from the Anatomy and Physiology open textbook (Chapter 22.4 – Gas Exchange).

Learning Outcomes

3.1. Explain how oxygen and carbon dioxide are transported in blood or equivalent fluid medium.

The other major activity in the lungs is the process of respiration, the process of gas exchange. The function of respiration is to provide oxygen for use by body cells during cellular respiration and to eliminate carbon dioxide, a waste product of cellular respiration, from the body. In order for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to occur, both gases must be transported between the external and internal respiration sites. Although carbon dioxide is more soluble than oxygen in blood, both gases require a specialized transport system for the majority of the gas molecules to be moved between the lungs and other tissues.

Therefore, gas exchange occurs at two sites in the body: in the lungs, where oxygen is picked up and carbon dioxide is released at the respiratory membrane, and at the tissues, where oxygen is released and carbon dioxide is picked up. External respiration is the exchange of gases with the external environment and occurs in the alveoli of the lungs. Internal respiration is the exchange of gases with the internal environment and occurs in the tissues. The actual exchange of gases occurs due to simple diffusion. Energy is not required to move oxygen or carbon dioxide across membranes. Instead, these gases follow pressure gradients that allow them to diffuse. The anatomy of the lung maximizes the diffusion of gases: The respiratory membrane is highly permeable to gases; the respiratory and blood capillary membranes are very thin, and there is a large surface area throughout the lungs.

External respiration

The pulmonary artery carries deoxygenated blood into the lungs from the heart, where it branches and eventually becomes the capillary network composed of pulmonary capillaries. These pulmonary capillaries create the respiratory membrane with the alveoli (Figure 3.1). As the blood is pumped through this capillary network, gas exchange occurs. Although a small amount of the oxygen is able to dissolve directly into the plasma from the alveoli, most of the oxygen is picked up by erythrocytes (red blood cells) and binds to a protein called hemoglobin, a process described later in this chapter. Oxygenated hemoglobin is red, causing the overall appearance of bright red oxygenated blood, which returns to the heart through the pulmonary veins. Carbon dioxide is released in the opposite direction of oxygen, from the blood to the alveoli. Some of the carbon dioxide is returned on hemoglobin, but can also be dissolved in plasma or is present as a converted form, also explained in greater detail later in this chapter.

External respiration occurs as a function of partial pressure differences in oxygen and carbon dioxide between the alveoli and the blood in the pulmonary capillaries.

External Respiration
This figure shows the pathway in which external respiration takes place. The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the alveolus and blood plasma is detailed.

Figure 3.1. In external respiration, oxygen diffuses across the respiratory membrane from the alveolus to the capillary, whereas carbon dioxide diffuses out of the capillary into the alveolus.

Although the solubility of oxygen in the blood is not high, there is a drastic difference in the partial pressure of oxygen in the alveoli versus in the blood of the pulmonary capillaries. This difference is about 64 mm Hg: The partial pressure of oxygen in the alveoli is about 104 mm Hg, whereas its partial pressure in the blood of the capillary is about 40 mm Hg. This large difference in partial pressure creates a very strong pressure gradient that causes oxygen to rapidly cross the respiratory membrane from the alveoli into the blood.

The partial pressure of carbon dioxide is also different between the alveolar air and the blood of the capillary. However, the partial pressure difference is less than that of oxygen, about 5 mm Hg. The partial pressure of carbon dioxide in the blood of the capillary is about 45 mm Hg, whereas its partial pressure in the alveoli is about 40 mm Hg. However, the solubility of carbon dioxide is much greater than that of oxygen—by a factor of about 20—in both blood and alveolar fluids. As a result, the relative concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide that diffuse across the respiratory membrane are similar.

Internal respiration

Internal respiration is the gas exchange that occurs at the level of body tissues (Figure 3.2). Similar to external respiration, internal respiration also occurs as simple diffusion due to a partial pressure gradient. However, the partial pressure gradients are the opposite of those present at the respiratory membrane. The partial pressure of oxygen in tissues is low, about 40 mm Hg, because oxygen is continuously used for cellular respiration. In contrast, the partial pressure of oxygen in the blood is about 100 mm Hg. This creates a pressure gradient that causes oxygen to dissociate from hemoglobin, diffuse out of the blood, cross the interstitial space, and enter the tissue. Hemoglobin that has little oxygen bound to it loses much of its brightness, so that blood returning to the heart is more burgundy in color.

Considering that cellular respiration continuously produces carbon dioxide, the partial pressure of carbon dioxide is lower in the blood than it is in the tissue, causing carbon dioxide to diffuse out of the tissue, cross the interstitial fluid, and enter the blood. It is then carried back to the lungs either bound to hemoglobin, dissolved in plasma, or in a converted form. By the time blood returns to the heart, the partial pressure of oxygen has returned to about 40 mm Hg, and the partial pressure of carbon dioxide has returned to about 45 mm Hg. The blood is then pumped back to the lungs to be oxygenated once again during external respiration.

This diagram details the pathway of internal respiration. The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between a red blood cell and a tissue cell is shown.

Figure 3.2. Internal respiration: oxygen diffuses out of the capillary and into cells, whereas carbon dioxide diffuses out of cells and into the capillary.

A hyperbaric chamber is a unit that can be sealed and expose a patient to either 100 percent oxygen with increased pressure or a mixture of gases that includes a higher concentration of oxygen than normal atmospheric air, also at a higher partial pressure than the atmosphere (Figure 3.3). Hyperbaric chamber treatment is based on the behaviour of gases. As you recall, gases move from a region of higher partial pressure to a region of lower partial pressure. In a hyperbaric chamber, the atmospheric pressure is increased, causing a greater amount of oxygen than normal to diffuse into the bloodstream of the patient. Hyperbaric chamber therapy is used to treat a variety of medical problems, such as wound and graft healing, anaerobic bacterial infections, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Exposure to and poisoning by carbon monoxide is difficult to reverse, because hemoglobin’s affinity for carbon monoxide is much stronger than its affinity for oxygen, causing carbon monoxide to replace oxygen in the blood. Hyperbaric chamber therapy can treat carbon monoxide poisoning because the increased atmospheric pressure causes more oxygen to diffuse into the bloodstream. At this increased pressure and increased concentration of oxygen, carbon monoxide is displaced from hemoglobin. Another example is the treatment of anaerobic bacterial infections, which are created by bacteria that cannot or prefer not to live in the presence of oxygen. An increase in blood and tissue levels of oxygen helps to kill the anaerobic bacteria that are responsible for the infection, as oxygen is toxic to anaerobic bacteria. For wounds and grafts, the chamber stimulates the healing process by increasing energy production needed for repair. Increasing oxygen transport allows cells to ramp up cellular respiration and thus ATP production, the energy needed to build new structures.

This photo shows two hyperbaric chambers.

Figure 3.3. Hyperbaric Chamber (credit: “komunews”/flickr.com)

Oxygen transport in the blood

Even though oxygen is transported via the blood, you may recall that oxygen is not very soluble in liquids. A small amount of oxygen does dissolve in the blood and is transported in the bloodstream, but it is only about 1.5% of the total amount. The majority of oxygen molecules are carried from the lungs to the body’s tissues by a specialized transport system, which relies on the erythrocyte—the red blood cell. Erythrocytes contain a metalloprotein, hemoglobin, which serves to bind oxygen molecules to the erythrocyte (Figure 3.4). Heme is the portion of hemoglobin that contains iron, and it is the heme that binds the oxygen. One hemoglobin molecule contains four iron-containing hemes, and because of this, each hemoglobin molecule is capable of carrying up to four molecules of oxygen. As oxygen diffuses across the respiratory membrane from the alveolus to the capillary, it also diffuses into the red blood cell and is bound by hemoglobin. The following reversible chemical reaction describes the production of the final product, oxyhemoglobin (Hb–O2), which is formed when oxygen binds to hemoglobin. Oxyhemoglobin is a bright red-colored molecule that contributes to the bright red color of oxygenated blood.

Hb + O2Hb  O2Hb + O2↔Hb − O2

In this formula, Hb represents reduced hemoglobin, that is, hemoglobin that does not have oxygen bound to it. There are multiple factors involved in how readily heme binds to and dissociates from oxygen, which will be discussed in the subsequent sections.

Erythrocyte and Hemoglobin
This diagram shows a red blood cell and the structure of a hemoglobin molecule.

Figure 3.4. Hemoglobin consists of four subunits, each of which contains one molecule of iron.

Function of hemoglobin

Hemoglobin is composed of subunits, a protein structure that is referred to as a quaternary structure. Each of the four subunits that make up hemoglobin is arranged in a ring-like fashion, with an iron atom covalently bound to the heme in the center of each subunit. Binding of the first oxygen molecule causes a conformational change in hemoglobin that allows the second molecule of oxygen to bind more readily. As each molecule of oxygen is bound, it further facilitates the binding of the next molecule, until all four heme sites are occupied by oxygen. The opposite occurs as well: After the first oxygen molecule dissociates and is “dropped off” at the tissues, the next oxygen molecule dissociates more readily. When all four heme sites are occupied, the hemoglobin is said to be saturated. When one to three heme sites are occupied, the hemoglobin is said to be partially saturated. Therefore, when considering the blood as a whole, the percent of the available heme units that are bound to oxygen at a given time is called hemoglobin saturation. Hemoglobin saturation of 100 percent means that every heme unit in all of the erythrocytes of the body is bound to oxygen. In a healthy individual with normal hemoglobin levels, hemoglobin saturation generally ranges from 95 percent to 99 percent.

Oxygen dissociation from hemoglobin

Partial pressure is an important aspect of the binding of oxygen to and disassociation from heme. An oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve is a graph that describes the relationship of partial pressure to the binding of oxygen to heme and its subsequent dissociation from heme (Figure 3.5). Remember that gases travel from an area of higher partial pressure to an area of lower partial pressure. In addition, the affinity of an oxygen molecule for heme increases as more oxygen molecules are bound. Therefore, in the oxygen-hemoglobin saturation curve, as the partial pressure of oxygen increases, a proportionately greater number of oxygen molecules are bound by heme. Not surprisingly, the oxygen-hemoglobin saturation/dissociation curve also shows that the lower the partial pressure of oxygen, the fewer oxygen molecules are bound to heme. As a result, the partial pressure of oxygen plays a major role in determining the degree of binding of oxygen to heme at the site of the respiratory membrane, as well as the degree of dissociation of oxygen from heme at the site of body tissues.

The top panel of this figure shows a graph with oxygen saturation of the y-axis and partial pressure of oxygen on the x-axis.
The middle panel shows oxygen saturation versus partial pressure of oxygen as a function of pH.
The bottom panel shows the same relationship as a function of temperature.

Figure 3.5. Oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation and effects of pH and temperature. These three graphs show (a) the relationship between the partial pressure of oxygen and hemoglobin saturation, (b) the effect of pH on the oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve, and (c) the effect of temperature on the oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve.

The mechanisms behind the oxygen-hemoglobin saturation/dissociation curve also serve as automatic control mechanisms that regulate how much oxygen is delivered to different tissues throughout the body. This is important because some tissues have a higher metabolic rate than others. Highly active tissues, such as muscle, rapidly use oxygen to produce ATP, lowering the partial pressure of oxygen in the tissue to about 20 mm Hg. The partial pressure of oxygen inside capillaries is about 100 mm Hg, so the difference between the two becomes quite high, about 80 mm Hg. As a result, a greater number of oxygen molecules dissociate from hemoglobin and enter the tissues. The reverse is true of tissues, such as adipose (body fat), which have lower metabolic rates. Because less oxygen is used by these cells, the partial pressure of oxygen within such tissues remains relatively high, resulting in fewer oxygen molecules dissociating from hemoglobin and entering the tissue interstitial fluid. Although venous blood is said to be deoxygenated, some oxygen is still bound to hemoglobin in its red blood cells. This provides an oxygen reserve that can be used when tissues suddenly demand more oxygen.

Factors other than partial pressure also affect the oxygen-hemoglobin saturation/dissociation curve. For example, a higher temperature promotes hemoglobin and oxygen to dissociate faster, whereas a lower temperature inhibits dissociation (see Figure 3.5b). However, the human body tightly regulates temperature, so this factor may not affect gas exchange throughout the body. The exception to this is in highly active tissues, which may release a larger amount of energy than is given off as heat. As a result, oxygen readily dissociates from hemoglobin, which is a mechanism that helps to provide active tissues with more oxygen.

Certain hormones, such as androgens, epinephrine, thyroid hormones, and growth hormone, can affect the oxygen-hemoglobin saturation/disassociation curve by stimulating the production of a compound called 2,3-bisphosphoglycerate (BPG) by erythrocytes. BPG is a byproduct of glycolysis. Because erythrocytes do not contain mitochondria, glycolysis is the sole method by which these cells produce ATP. BPG promotes the disassociation of oxygen from hemoglobin. Therefore, the greater the concentration of BPG, the more readily oxygen dissociates from hemoglobin, despite its partial pressure.

The pH of the blood is another factor that influences the oxygen-hemoglobin saturation/dissociation curve (see Figure 3.5b). The Bohr effect is a phenomenon that arises from the relationship between pH and oxygen’s affinity for hemoglobin: A lower, more acidic pH promotes oxygen dissociation from hemoglobin. In contrast, a higher, or more basic, pH inhibits oxygen dissociation from hemoglobin. The greater the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, the more molecules that must be converted, which in turn generates hydrogen ions and thus lowers blood pH. Furthermore, blood pH may become more acidic when certain byproducts of cell metabolism, such as lactic acid, carbonic acid, and carbon dioxide, are released into the bloodstream.

Carbon dioxide transport in the blood

Carbon dioxide is transported by three major mechanisms. The first mechanism of carbon dioxide transport is by blood plasma, as some carbon dioxide molecules dissolve in the blood. The second mechanism is transport in the form of bicarbonate (HCO3), which also dissolves in plasma. The third mechanism of carbon dioxide transport is similar to the transport of oxygen by erythrocytes (Figure 3.6).

This figure shows how carbon dioxide is transported from the tissue to the red blood cell.

Figure 3.6. Carbon dioxide transport. Carbon dioxide is transported by three different methods: (a) in erythrocytes; (b) after forming carbonic acid (H2CO3 ), which is dissolved in plasma; (c) and in plasma.

Dissolved carbon dioxide

Although carbon dioxide is not considered to be highly soluble in blood, a small fraction—about 7 to 10 percent—of the carbon dioxide that diffuses into the blood from the tissues dissolves in plasma. The dissolved carbon dioxide then travels in the bloodstream and when the blood reaches the pulmonary capillaries, the dissolved carbon dioxide diffuses across the respiratory membrane into the alveoli, where it is then exhaled during pulmonary ventilation.

Bicarbonate buffer

A large fraction—about 70 percent—of the carbon dioxide molecules that diffuse into the blood is transported to the lungs as bicarbonate. Most bicarbonate is produced in erythrocytes after carbon dioxide diffuses into the capillaries, and subsequently into red blood cells. Carbonic anhydrase (CA) causes carbon dioxide and water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), which dissociates into two ions: bicarbonate (HCO3) and hydrogen (H+). The following formula depicts this reaction:

CO2 + H2CA H2CO3H+ + HCO3CO2 + H2O CA↔ H2CO3↔H+ + HCO3−

Bicarbonate tends to build up in the erythrocytes so that there is a greater concentration of bicarbonate in the erythrocytes than in the surrounding blood plasma. As a result, some of the bicarbonate will leave the erythrocytes and move down its concentration gradient into the plasma in exchange for chloride (Cl) ions. This phenomenon is referred to as the chloride shift and occurs because by exchanging one negative ion for another negative ion, neither the electrical charge of the erythrocytes nor that of the blood is altered.

At the pulmonary capillaries, the chemical reaction that produced bicarbonate (shown above) is reversed, and carbon dioxide and water are the products. Much of the bicarbonate in the plasma re-enters the erythrocytes in exchange for chloride ions. Hydrogen ions and bicarbonate ions join to form carbonic acid, which is converted into carbon dioxide and water by carbonic anhydrase. Carbon dioxide diffuses out of the erythrocytes and into the plasma, where it can further diffuse across the respiratory membrane into the alveoli to be exhaled during pulmonary ventilation.


About 20 percent of carbon dioxide is bound by hemoglobin and is transported to the lungs. Carbon dioxide does not bind to iron as oxygen does; instead, carbon dioxide binds amino acid moieties on the globin portions of hemoglobin to form carbaminohemoglobin, which forms when hemoglobin and carbon dioxide bind. When hemoglobin is not transporting oxygen, it tends to have a bluish-purple tone to it, creating the darker maroon color typical of deoxygenated blood. The following formula depicts this reversible reaction:

CO2 + HbHbCO2CO2 + Hb↔HbCO2

Similar to the transport of oxygen by heme, the binding and dissociation of carbon dioxide to and from hemoglobin is dependent on the partial pressure of carbon dioxide. Because carbon dioxide is released from the lungs, blood that leaves the lungs and reaches body tissues has a lower partial pressure of carbon dioxide than is found in the tissues. As a result, carbon dioxide leaves the tissues because of its higher partial pressure, enters the blood, and then moves into red blood cells, binding to hemoglobin. In contrast, in the pulmonary capillaries, the partial pressure of carbon dioxide is high compared to within the alveoli. As a result, carbon dioxide dissociates readily from hemoglobin and diffuses across the respiratory membrane into the air.


Question 3.1

When ventilation is not sufficient, which of the following occurs?
a. The capillary constricts.
b. The capillary dilates.
c. The partial pressure of oxygen in the affected alveolus increases.
d. The bronchioles dilate.

Questions Question 3.2

Gas exchange that occurs at the level of the tissues is called ________.
a. external respiration
b. interpulmonary respiration
c. internal respiration
d. pulmonary ventilation

Watch Video Watch this video to see the transport of oxygen from the lungs to the tissues.
Questions Question 3.3

Oxyhemoglobin forms by a chemical reaction between which of the following?
hemoglobin and carbon dioxide
b. carbonic anhydrase and carbon dioxide
c. hemoglobin and oxygen
d. carbonic anhydrase and oxygen


Questions Question 3.4

Which of the following factors play a role in the oxygen-hemoglobin saturation/dissociation curve?
b. pH
c. BPG
d. All of the above.


Think Question 3.5

Why is oxygenated blood bright red, whereas deoxygenated blood tends to be more of a purple color? (think back to the video about oxygen transport).

Think Question 3.6

Describe the relationship between the partial pressure of oxygen and the binding of oxygen to hemoglobin.


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3.1 - Gas Transport by Sanja Hinic-Frlog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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