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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the passage of air from the outside environment to the lungs
  • Explain how the lungs are protected from particulate matter

The primary function of the respiratory system is to deliver oxygen to the cells of the body’s tissues and remove carbon dioxide, a cell waste product. The main structures of the human respiratory system are the nasal cavity, the trachea, and lungs.

All aerobic organisms require oxygen to carry out their metabolic functions. Along the evolutionary tree, different organisms have devised different means of obtaining oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere. The environment in which the animal lives greatly determines how an animal respires. The complexity of the respiratory system is correlated with the size of the organism. As animal size increases, diffusion distances increase and the ratio of surface area to volume drops. In unicellular organisms, diffusion across the cell membrane is sufficient for supplying oxygen to the cell ( [link] ). Diffusion is a slow, passive transport process. In order for diffusion to be a feasible means of providing oxygen to the cell, the rate of oxygen uptake must match the rate of diffusion across the membrane. In other words, if the cell were very large or thick, diffusion would not be able to provide oxygen quickly enough to the inside of the cell. Therefore, dependence on diffusion as a means of obtaining oxygen and removing carbon dioxide remains feasible only for small organisms or those with highly-flattened bodies, such as many flatworms (Platyhelminthes). Larger organisms had to evolve specialized respiratory tissues, such as gills, lungs, and respiratory passages accompanied by complex circulatory systems, to transport oxygen throughout their entire body.

The photo shows a round, green cell with a smooth, shiny surface. The cell resembles a balloon.
The cell of the unicellular algae Ventricaria ventricosa is one of the largest known, reaching one to five centimeters in diameter. Like all single-celled organisms, V. ventricosa exchanges gases across the cell membrane.

Direct diffusion

For small multicellular organisms, diffusion across the outer membrane is sufficient to meet their oxygen needs. Gas exchange by direct diffusion across surface membranes is efficient for organisms less than 1 mm in diameter. In simple organisms, such as cnidarians and flatworms, every cell in the body is close to the external environment. Their cells are kept moist and gases diffuse quickly via direct diffusion. Flatworms are small, literally flat worms, which ‘breathe’ through diffusion across the outer membrane ( [link] ). The flat shape of these organisms increases the surface area for diffusion, ensuring that each cell within the body is close to the outer membrane surface and has access to oxygen. If the flatworm had a cylindrical body, then the cells in the center would not be able to get oxygen.

The photo shows a worm with a flat, ribbon-like body, resting on sand. The worm is black with white spots.
This flatworm’s process of respiration works by diffusion across the outer membrane. (credit: Stephen Childs)

Skin and gills

Earthworms and amphibians use their skin (integument) as a respiratory organ. A dense network of capillaries lies just below the skin and facilitates gas exchange between the external environment and the circulatory system. The respiratory surface must be kept moist in order for the gases to dissolve and diffuse across cell membranes.

Questions & Answers

Is the "growth and maintenance phase" in a cell's life cycle when cell division is about to occur
Somto Reply
what is the common name of Basidiomycetes
Ogechukwu Reply
الاجزاء النباتية لابد من تعقيمها قبل زراعتها في القوارير
yes
tariq
whats this?
tariq
do you speak arabic?!
what are bio elements
Shahzad Reply
which are present In Body And such elements Have Great role in our Body there are 16 bio elements that maintains human Body but on The basis of amount There are 6 bio elements present in Concen. of 99% and More Valuable And Highly Concen. element is Oxygent with 65 %
Haider
how je pollution brought about
Lamina Reply
how je pollution brouhgt about
Lamina
non is pollution brouhgt about
Lamina
describe the anatomy of cell division
Ivanovic Reply
Complex traits such as height result from 
Ruben Reply
what is the difference between chloroplasts and mitochondria
Nkalubo Reply
chloroplast in plants and bacterial cell ; mitochondria in animal cells
aung
Diagram of a living cell
Eliza Reply
what is cell
Sule
A cell is the smallest basic unit of life.
John
what's biology
Ogochukwu Reply
this is da study of living and non-living thing in an eco-system
Nutty
it is the study of living and non living organism in the ecology
Akufia
I agree with you dat biology is d study of living nd nonliving features
Winner
why do plants store carbohydrates in form of starch and not glucose?
Nutty Reply
Describe the structure of starch?
Nutty
wat is diffusion
Winner
water is life!.. Discuss?
Nutty Reply
why do plants store carbohydrates in form if starch not glucose!
Nutty
study of living thing
Dennis Reply
what is beyond a liveing cell
Raymond
what is biology
Gabriel Reply
d study of living nd non living thing
Winner
what is vasectomy
Evelyn Reply
The surgical removal of d spermduct
Eniola

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Source:  OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11448/1.10
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