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Exchanges: 2. Introduction to exchange surfaces in cells and organs - structural adaptations to increase efficiency of material transfer

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There are various sections to work through, after 1 they can be read and studied in any order.

Sub-index of biology notes on exchange surfaces

2. Introduction to exchange surfaces in cells and organs

structural features adapted for efficient transfer of substance

Reminder 1: Other than for active transport, diffusion, naturally occurs in gases and liquids, because all the particles (molecules or ions) have sufficient kinetic energy to move around freely at random from a region of higher concentration to a region of lower concentration.

Reminder 2: Active transport is the movement of particles (molecules or ions) through a cell membrane from a region of lower concentration to a region of higher concentration using energy from respiration.

Within cell membranes there are carrier proteins use energy from respiration to transport molecules or ions across the membrane, against the concentration gradient, therefore cells that use active transport usually have more mitochondria for respiration compared to other cells.

In complex multicellular organisms (eukaryotes) the smaller surface area to volume ratio means surfaces and organ systems are specialised for exchanging materials which include, as well as water, small dissolved molecules (e.g. glucose, amino acids), ions (e.g. Na+, K+, Ca2+, Fe2+, Cl-) and gases (O2, CO2).

This is to efficiently allow sufficient molecules to be transported into and out of cells for the organismís needs.

The effectiveness of an exchange surface is increased by:

having a large surface area

a membrane that is thin, to provide a short diffusion path

in animals, having an efficient blood supply

in animals, for gaseous exchange being ventilated.

Living organisms must be to exchange substances with their surroundings in order to survive - grow, mature and reproduce.

The size (volume) of an organism or a specific organ, and its surface area, greatly affects how efficient this exchange process is.

The rate of transfer is often governed by the surface area : volume ratio.

Diffusion is used by cells to take in useful substances and remove waste products.

Why do we need exchange surfaces?

Exchange or transfer of substance usually involves diffusion through a cell membrane (permeable, partially permeable), water movement by osmosis and also active transport e.g. the transfer needs of organisms include:

(i) Useful nutrient substances e.g. food molecules from digestion like amino acids and sugars, mineral ions, water taken up by  cells by osmosis,

(ii) Removal of waste products e.g. carbon dioxide from respiration, urea (poisonous) from breakdown of proteins in animals - diffuses from cells into blood plasma and transferred to be absorbed by the kidneys prior to excretion.

(iii) Gas exchange usually involves taking oxygen into cells for aerobic respiration and passing out carbon dioxide to the environment.

Reminder: Osmosis as the net movement of water molecules from a region of higher water potential (from a more dilute solution) to a region of lower water potential (a more concentrated solution), through a partially permeable cell membrane (concentrated refers to dissolved molecules or ions).

Know and understand that many organ systems are specialised for exchanging materials.

The ease with which an organism can exchange substances with the environment depends on the organisms surface area to volume ratio AND you can extend this idea to an organ itself e.g. the lungs.

In single-celled microorganisms gases and dissolved substances can often diffuse directly into and out of the cell through the cell membrane.

This is very efficient because a single cell has a large surface area to volume ratio membrane - large surface area relative to the volume of the cell.

Therefore the single-celled organism has no trouble in exchanging sufficient materials with its environment.

Know that the size and complexity of an organism increases the difficulty of exchanging materials.

One reason for this increased difficulty in exchanging materials is that the distance from the exchange surface is getting further away from where the nutrients and oxygen are needed and the waste to be removed.

Know that gas and solute exchange surfaces in humans and other multi-cellular organisms are adapted to maximise effectiveness - they don't have the obvious surface/volume ratio single-celled organisms have.

Multicellular organisms have a smaller surface area to volume ratios compared to a single celled organism.

This surface area is NOT sufficient to provide efficient rates of diffusion of substances in and out of the organism without significant adaptation through evolution - some examples are described and explained on this page.

It is essential that the transfer processes of moving sugars, amino acids, oxygen etc. into cells and the removal of waste products, can happen as efficiently as possible.

Therefore exchange surfaces have evolved to maximise the rate of transfer of wanted substances into, and unwanted chemicals out of, multicellular organisms.

To increase and maximise the efficiency of transfer the exchange system needs to have/be ...

(i) a large surface area to increase diffusion rate eg alveoli in lungs, villi in intestine,

(ii) thin permeable cell membranes are usually quite thin to provide a short diffusion distance (part of thin layers of cell tissue, so diffusion distance and times are short over a wide area),

(iii) a moist exchange surface - gases can dissolve into and diffuse through.

Animals have lots of thin blood vessels to bring in essential nutrient molecules and ions for life and carry waste molecules away e.g. the thin bronchiole tubes in the lungs,

Thin capillaries which have a particularly large surface to volume ratio - this allows fast diffusion in either direction,

Animals need an efficient gaseous exchange ventilation system to take in air for oxygen and give out air including waste carbon dioxide,

in the lungs the tiny pockets called alveoli greatly increase the gas exchange surface area : volume ratio.

Substance exchange problems for multicellular organisms

The larger a multicellular organism, the more difficult it is to exchange substances.

Cells deep in the body are some distance to the surrounding environment - air or water.

Larger organisms have low surface to volume ratio reducing exchange efficiency.

Therefore, through evolution, instead of exchange through an outer membrane ('skin') multicellular organisms have developed specialised exchange organs including an equally specialised exchange surface.

BUT, specialised organs are not enough on their own to serve a relatively large body, you also need specialised transport systems to convey substances to and from the body cells e.g. to provide nutrients or remove waste products.

In animals the transport system is the circulatory system - blood vessels etc.

and also gaseous exchange in lungs, the lengthy digestive system and the excretory system - and all systems must work in harmony with each other!

See The human circulatory system - heart, lungs, blood and blood vessels

In plants, transport is effected through the xylem and phloem vessels and ..

Transport and gas exchange in plants, transpiration, absorption of nutrients etc.

Summary of learning objectives and key words or phrases

Be able to describe and explain the exchange processes of surface membranes in cells and organs.

Be able to describe the evolutionary structural adaptations like a large surface area to increase the efficiency of material transfer.

Be able to describe and explain the factors involved in the rate of transfer of substances across a cell membrane and appreciate that active transport is sometimes needed,



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