Thin and strong! The bioengineering dilemma in the structural and functional design of the blood-gas barrier

John N. Maina, John B. West

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

160 Citations (Scopus)


In gas exchangers, the tissue barrier, the partition that separates the respiratory media (water/air and hemolymph/blood), is exceptional for its remarkable thinness, striking strength, and vast surface area. These properties formed to meet conflicting roles: thinness was essential for efficient flux of oxygen by passive diffusion, and strength was crucial for maintaining structural integrity. What we have designated as "three-ply" or "laminated tripartite" architecture of the barrier appeared very early in the evolution of the vertebrate gas exchanger. The design is conspicuous in the water-blood barrier of the fish gills through the lungs of air-breathing vertebrates, where the plan first appeared in lungfishes (Dipnoi) some 400 million years ago. The similarity of the structural design of the barrier in respiratory organs of animals that remarkably differ phylogenetically, behaviorally, and ecologically shows that the construction has been highly conserved both vertically and horizontally, i.e., along and across the evolutionary continuum. It is conceivable that the blueprint may have been the only practical construction that could simultaneously grant satisfactory strength and promote gas exchange. In view of the very narrow allometric range of the thickness of the blood-gas barrier in the lungs of different-sized vertebrate groups, the measurement has seemingly been optimized. There is convincing, though indirect, evidence that the extracellular matrix and particularly the type IV collagen in the lamina densa of the basement membrane is the main stress-bearing component of the blood-gas barrier. Under extreme conditions of operation and in some disease states, the barrier fails with serious consequences. The lamina densa which in many parts of the blood-gas barrier is <50 nm thin is a lifeline in the true sense of the word.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)811-844
Number of pages34
JournalPhysiological Reviews
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Physiology (medical)


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