AQA A Level Biology

Revision Notes

3.2.1 The Human Gas Exchange System

The Human Gas Exchange System: Structure

  • Gas exchange takes place in the human thorax. This is a collection of organs and tissues in the chest cavity

The Human Thorax, downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes

The main structures of the human gas exchange system

Thorax Structures Table

Thorax Structures Table, downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes

Gas Exchange Tissues

  • Cartilage is a strong and flexible tissue found in various places around the body
    • One place is in rings along the trachea, called Tracheal rings
    • These rings help to support the trachea and ensure it stays open, while allowing it to move and flex while we breathe
  • Ciliated epithelium is a specialised tissue found along the trachea down to the bronchi. Each cell has small projections of cilia which sweep mucus, dust and bacteria upwards and away from the lungs and the epithelium itself

Ciliated Epithelium, downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes

Ciliated epithelium showing microvilli, basement membrane, goblet cell and nucleus

  • Goblet cells can be found scattered throughout the ciliated epithelium in the trachea
    • They are mucus-producing cells that secrete viscous mucus which traps dust, bacteria and other microorganisms and prevents them from reaching the lungs
    • The mucus is then swept along by the cilia of the ciliated epithelium upwards and is swallowed
    • The mucus and any microorganisms will then be destroyed by the acid in the stomach
  • The alveoli have a lining of thin and squamous epithelium, that allows for gas exchange
    • The squamous epithelium forms the structure of the alveolar wall and so is very thin and permeable for the easy diffusion of gases
  • Smooth muscle can be found throughout the walls of the bronchi and bronchioles
    • It helps to regulate the flow of air into the lungs by dilating when more air is needed and constricting when less air is needed
  • Each alveolus is surrounded by an extensive network of capillaries
    • Carbon dioxide diffuses out of the capillaries and into the alveoli to be exhaled, while oxygen diffuses the other way from alveoli and into the capillaries to be carried around the body
  • These capillaries have a diameter of around 3-4µm, which is only wide enough for one red blood cell to travel through at any one time
    • This ensures that there is sufficient time and opportunity for gas exchange to occur

Worked Example

Explain how the lining of the trachea, bronchus and bronchioles provide protection against pathogens.

Exemplar answer:

Cilia beat to move mucus away from the lungs and up towards the mouth. Mucus is produced by goblet cells and acts as a barrier to pathogens from entering the ciliated epithelium. The mucus also traps bacteria and microorganisms, while blood vessels bring macrophages to engulf any pathogens in phagocytosis.

Exam Tip

Remember to pay attention to command words in exams, as they will be asking different things. For example, a question asking you to “Describe” the structure of the alveoli is different from a question asking you to “Explain” the structure of the alveoli.

“Describe” questions are asking you to give an account of something or to write events or processes in a logical order.

“Explain” questions are asking you to write why something happens or to link its structure to its function – as a result of this, “because” will be an important part of your answer.

Author: Lára

Lára graduated from Oxford University in Biological Sciences and has now been a science tutor working in the UK for several years. Lára has a particular interest in the area of infectious disease and epidemiology, and enjoys creating original educational materials that develop confidence and facilitate learning.
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