26.4 Acid-base balance

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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
• Identify the most powerful buffer system in the body
• Explain the way in which the respiratory system affects blood pH

Proper physiological functioning depends on a very tight balance between the concentrations of acids and bases in the blood. Acid-balance balance is measured using the pH scale, as shown in [link] . A variety of buffering systems permits blood and other bodily fluids to maintain a narrow pH range, even in the face of perturbations. A buffer is a chemical system that prevents a radical change in fluid pH by dampening the change in hydrogen ion concentrations in the case of excess acid or base. Most commonly, the substance that absorbs the ions is either a weak acid, which takes up hydroxyl ions, or a weak base, which takes up hydrogen ions.

Buffer systems in the body

The buffer systems in the human body are extremely efficient, and different systems work at different rates. It takes only seconds for the chemical buffers in the blood to make adjustments to pH. The respiratory tract can adjust the blood pH upward in minutes by exhaling CO 2 from the body. The renal system can also adjust blood pH through the excretion of hydrogen ions (H + ) and the conservation of bicarbonate, but this process takes hours to days to have an effect.

The buffer systems functioning in blood plasma include plasma proteins, phosphate, and bicarbonate and carbonic acid buffers. The kidneys help control acid-base balance by excreting hydrogen ions and generating bicarbonate that helps maintain blood plasma pH within a normal range. Protein buffer systems work predominantly inside cells.

Protein buffers in blood plasma and cells

Nearly all proteins can function as buffers. Proteins are made up of amino acids, which contain positively charged amino groups and negatively charged carboxyl groups. The charged regions of these molecules can bind hydrogen and hydroxyl ions, and thus function as buffers. Buffering by proteins accounts for two-thirds of the buffering power of the blood and most of the buffering within cells.

Hemoglobin as a buffer

Hemoglobin is the principal protein inside of red blood cells and accounts for one-third of the mass of the cell. During the conversion of CO 2 into bicarbonate, hydrogen ions liberated in the reaction are buffered by hemoglobin, which is reduced by the dissociation of oxygen. This buffering helps maintain normal pH. The process is reversed in the pulmonary capillaries to re-form CO 2 , which then can diffuse into the air sacs to be exhaled into the atmosphere. This process is discussed in detail in the chapter on the respiratory system.

Phosphate buffer

Phosphates are found in the blood in two forms: sodium dihydrogen phosphate ( ${\text{Na}}_{2}{\text{H}}_{2}{\text{PO}}_{4}{}^{-}$ ), which is a weak acid, and sodium monohydrogen phosphate ( ${\text{Na}}_{\text{2}}{\text{HPO}}_{\text{4}}^{\text{2-}}$ ), which is a weak base. When ${\text{Na}}_{\text{2}}{\text{HPO}}_{\text{4}}^{\text{2-}}$ comes into contact with a strong acid, such as HCl, the base picks up a second hydrogen ion to form the weak acid ${\text{Na}}_{2}{\text{H}}_{\text{2}}{\text{PO}}_{\text{4}}{}^{-}$ and sodium chloride, NaCl. When ${\text{Na}}_{2}{\text{HPO}}_{\text{4}}^{2}{}^{-}$ (the weak acid) comes into contact with a strong base, such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH), the weak acid reverts back to the weak base and produces water. Acids and bases are still present, but they hold onto the ions.

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Cells are the basic building blocks of all living things. The human body is composed of trillions of cells. They provide structure for the body, take in nutrients from food, convert those nutrients into energy, and carry out specialized functions. ... Cells have many parts, each with a different
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