Components of the Blood

The Role of Blood in the Body

The many roles of blood include delivering nutrients and oxygen to cells, transporting waste from cells, and maintaining homeostasis.

Learning Objectives

Identify the variety of roles played by blood in the body

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Blood plays an important role in regulating the body’s systems and maintaining homeostasis.
  • Other functions include supplying oxygen and nutrients to tissues, removing waste, transporting hormones and other signals throughout the body, and regulating body pH and core body temperature.
  • Blood is composed of plasma, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
  • Blood platelets play a role in coagulation (the clotting of blood to stop bleed from an open wound); white blood cells play an important role in the immune system; red blood cells transport oxygen and carbon dioxide.
  • Blood is considered a type of connective tissue because it is made in the bones.

Key Terms

  • hydraulic: pertaining to water
  • coagulation: the process by which blood forms solid clots
  • homeostasis: the ability of a system or living organism to adjust its internal environment to maintain a stable equilibrium

The Role of Blood in the Body

Blood is a bodily fluid in animals that delivers necessary substances such as nutrients and oxygen to the cells and transports metabolic waste products away from those same cells. The components of blood include plasma (the liquid portion, which contains water, proteins, salts, lipids, and glucose ), red blood cells and white blood cells, and cell fragments called platelets.

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Components of human blood: The cells and cellular components of human blood are shown. Red blood cells deliver oxygen to the cells and remove carbon dioxide. White blood cells (including neutrophils, monocytes, lymphocytes, eosinophils, and basophils) are involved in the immune response. Platelets form clots that prevent blood loss after injury.

Blood plays an important role in regulating the body’s systems and maintaining homeostasis. It performs many functions within the body, including:

  • Supplying oxygen to tissues (bound to hemoglobin, which is carried in red cells)
  • Supplying nutrients such as glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids either dissolved in the blood or bound to plasma proteins (e.g., blood lipids)
  • Removing waste such as carbon dioxide, urea, and lactic acid
  • Immunological functions, including circulation of white blood cells and detection of foreign material by antibodies
  • Coagulation, which is one part of the body’s self-repair mechanism (blood clotting by the platelets after an open wound in order to stop bleeding)
  • Messenger functions, including the transport of hormones and the signaling of tissue damage
  • Regulating body pH
  • Regulating core body temperature
  • Hydraulic functions, including the regulation of the colloidal osmotic pressure of blood

Medical terms related to blood often begin with hemo- or hemato- (also spelled haemo- and haemato-), which is from the Greek word α (haima) for “blood”. In terms of anatomy and histology, blood is considered a specialized form of connective tissue, given its origin in the bones.

Red Blood Cells

Red blood cells, made from bone marrow stem cells, are crucial for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the body.

Learning Objectives

Explain the structure and function of red blood cells

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Red blood cells, or erythrocytes, get their color from the iron-containing protein hemoglobin that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body and carbon dioxide back to the lungs.
  • In most mammals, erythrocytes do not have any organelles (e.g. nucleus, mitochondria ); this frees up room for the hemoglobin molecules and prevents the cell from using the oxygen it is carrying.
  • Invertebrates use different pigments, such as hemocyanin (a blue-green, copper-containing protein), chlorocruorin (a green-colored, iron-containing pigment), and hemerythrin (a red, iron-containing protein), to bind and carry oxygen.
  • Red blood cells have a variety of surface glycoproteins and glycolipids that result in the different blood types A, B, and O.
  • The average life span of a red blood cell is 120 days, at which time the liver and spleen break them down for recycling.

Key Terms

  • hemoglobin: iron-containing substance in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body; it consists of a protein (globulin) and heme (a porphyrin ring with iron at its center)
  • hemolymph: a circulating fluid in the bodies of some invertebrates that is the equivalent of blood
  • anucleate: of a cell which does not have a nucleus
  • erythrocyte: an anucleate cell in the blood involved with the transport of oxygen called a red blood cell because of the red coloring of hemoglobin

Red Blood Cells

Red blood cells, or erythrocytes (erythro- = “red”; -cyte = “cell”), specialized cells that circulate through the body delivering oxygen to other cells, are formed from stem cells in the bone marrow. In mammals, red blood cells are small, biconcave cells that, at maturity, do not contain a nucleus or mitochondria; they are only 7–8 µm in size. In birds and non-avian reptiles, red blood cells contain a nucleus.

The red coloring of blood comes from the iron-containing protein hemoglobin (see [a] in ) The principal job of this protein is to carry oxygen, but it transports carbon dioxide as well. Hemoglobin is packed into red blood cells at a rate of about 250 million molecules of hemoglobin per cell. Each hemoglobin molecule binds four oxygen molecules so that each red blood cell carries one billion molecules of oxygen. There are approximately 25 trillion red blood cells in the five liters of blood in the human body, which could carry up to 25 sextillion (25 × 1021) molecules of oxygen at any time. In mammals, the lack of organelles in erythrocytes leaves more room for the hemoglobin molecules. The lack of mitochondria also prevents use of the oxygen for metabolic respiration. Only mammals have anucleated red blood cells; however, some mammals (camels, for instance) have nucleated red blood cells. The advantage of nucleated red blood cells is that these cells can undergo mitosis. Anucleated red blood cells metabolize anaerobically (without oxygen), making use of a primitive metabolic pathway to produce ATP and increase the efficiency of oxygen transport.

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Different oxygen-carrying proteins: (a) In most vertebrates, hemoglobin delivers oxygen to the body and removes some carbon dioxide. Hemoglobin is composed of four protein subunits, two alpha chains and two beta chains, and a heme group that has iron associated with it. The iron reversibly associates with oxygen; in so doing, it is oxidized from Fe2+ to Fe3+. (b) In most mollusks and some arthropods, hemocyanin delivers oxygen. Unlike hemoglobin, hemolymph is not carried in blood cells, but floats free in the hemolymph. Copper, instead of iron, binds the oxygen, giving the hemolymph a blue-green color. (c) In annelids, such as the earthworm and some other invertebrates, hemerythrin carries oxygen. Like hemoglobin, hemerythrin is carried in blood cells and has iron associated with it, but despite its name, hemerythrin does not contain heme.

Not all organisms use hemoglobin as the method of oxygen transport. Invertebrates that utilize hemolymph rather than blood use different pigments containing copper or iron to bind to the oxygen. Hemocyanin, a blue-green, copper-containing protein is found in mollusks, crustaceans, and some of the arthropods ( b). Chlorocruorin, a green-colored, iron-containing pigment, is found in four families of polychaete tubeworms. Hemerythrin, a red, iron-containing protein, is found in some polychaete worms and annelids ( c). Despite the name, hemerythrin does not contain a heme group; its oxygen-carrying capacity is poor compared to hemoglobin.

The small size and large surface area of red blood cells allow for rapid diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide across the plasma membrane. In the lungs, carbon dioxide is released while oxygen is taken in by the blood. In the tissues, oxygen is released from the blood while carbon dioxide is bound for transport back to the lungs. Studies have found that hemoglobin also binds nitrous oxide (NO). Nitrous oxide is a vasodilator: an agent that causes dilation of the blood vessels, thereby reducing blood pressure. It relaxes the blood vessels and capillaries which may help with gas exchange and the passage of red blood cells through narrow vessels. Nitroglycerin, a heart medication for angina and heart attacks, is converted to NO to help relax the blood vessels, increasiing oxygen flow throughout the body.

A characteristic of red blood cells is their glycolipid and glycoprotein coating; these are lipids and proteins that have carbohydrate molecules attached. In humans, the surface glycoproteins and glycolipids on red blood cells vary between individuals, producing the different blood types, such as A, B, and O. Red blood cells have an average life span of 120 days, at which time they are broken down and recycled in the liver and spleen by phagocytic macrophages, a type of white blood cell.

White Blood Cells

White blood cells, also called leukocytes, play an important role in the body’s immune response by identifying and targeting pathogens.

Learning Objectives

Explain the structure and function of white blood cells

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • White blood cells contain nuclei; they can be divided into granulocytes (e.g. neutrophils, eosinophils, and basophils) and agranulocytes (e.g. monocytes and lymphocytes ).
  • White blood cells can become macrophages at sites of infection or inflammation or they can circulate in the bloodstream searching for damaged tissue or foreign particles.
  • Lymphocytes make up the majority of the cells in the immune system; they include B cells, T cells, and natural killer cells, all of which attack foreign particles or cells such as viruses, fungi, bacteria, transplanted cells, and cancer cells.

Key Terms

  • macrophage: a white blood cell that phagocytizes necrotic cell debris and foreign material, including viruses, bacteria, and tattoo ink; part of the innate immune system
  • pathogen: any organism or substance, especially a microorganism, capable of causing disease, such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, or fungi
  • leukocyte: a white blood cell
  • granule: a small structure in a cell

White Blood Cells

White blood cells, also called leukocytes (leuko = white), make up approximately one percent, by volume, of the cells in blood. The role of white blood cells is very different from that of red blood cells. They are primarily involved in the immune response to identify and target pathogens, such as invading bacteria, viruses, and other foreign organisms. White blood cells are formed continually; some live only for hours or days, while some live for years.

The morphology of white blood cells differs significantly from red blood cells. They have nuclei and do not contain hemoglobin. The different types of white blood cells are identified by their microscopic appearance after histologic staining. Each has a different, specialized function. One of the two main groups are the granulocytes, which contain granules in their cytoplasm, and include the neutrophils, eosinophils, and basophils ( a). The second main group is the agranulocytes, which lack granules in their cytoplasm, and include the monocytes and lymphocytes ( b).

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Types of white blood cells: (a) Granulocytes (neutrophils, eosinophils and basophils) are characterized by a lobed nucleus and granular inclusions in the cytoplasm. Granulocytes are typically first-responders during injury or infection. (b) Agranulocytes include lymphocytes and monocytes. Lymphocytes, including B and T cells, are responsible for adaptive immune response. Monocytes differentiate into macrophages and dendritic cells, which in turn respond to infection or injury.

Some white blood cells become macrophages that either stay at the same site or move through the blood stream and gather at sites of infection or inflammation where they are attracted by chemical signals from foreign particles and damaged cells. Lymphocytes are the primary cells of the immune system. They include B cells, T cells, and natural killer cells. B cells destroy bacteria and inactivate their toxins; they also produce antibodies. T cells attack viruses, fungi, some bacteria, transplanted cells, and cancer cells. Natural killer cells attack a variety of infectious microbes and certain tumor cells.

One reason that HIV poses significant management challenges is because the virus directly targets T cells by gaining entry through a receptor. Once inside the cell, HIV then multiplies using the T cell’s own genetic machinery. After the HIV virus replicates, it is transmitted directly from the infected T cell to macrophages. The presence of HIV can remain unrecognized for an extensive period of time before full disease symptoms develop.

Platelets and Coagulation Factors

Platelets and coagulation factors are instrumental in plugging damaged blood vessel walls and stopping blood loss.

Learning Objectives

Describe the roles played by platelets and coagulation factors

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Platelets (thrombocytes) are small, anucleated cell fragments that result from the disintegration of megakaryocytes.
  • Under normal conditions, blood vessel walls produce chemical messengers that inhibit platelet activation, but, when injured, they expose collagen, releasing factors that attract platelets to the wound site.
  • Activated platelets stick together to form a platelet plug, which activates coagulation factor proteins found in the blood to further enhance the response to injury by strengthening the plug with fibrin.
  • Vitamin K is necessary for the proper function of many coagulation factors; a deficiency is detrimental to blood clotting.
  • Platelets can become activated and form clots in situations with non-physiological flow caused by disease or artificial devices.

Key Terms

  • collagen: Any of more than 28 types of glycoprotein that forms elongated fibers, usually found in the extracellular matrix of connective tissue.
  • clot: a solidified mass of blood
  • stenosis: an abnormal narrowing or stricture in a blood vessel or other tubular organ

Platelets and Coagulation Factors

Blood must form clots to heal wounds and prevent excess blood loss. Small cell fragments called platelets (thrombocytes) are formed from the disintegration of larger cells called megakaryocytes ( a). For each megakaryocyte, 2000–3000 platelets are formed with 150,000 to 400,000 platelets present in each cubic millimeter of blood. Each platelet is disc shaped and 2–4 μm in diameter. They contain many small vesicles, but do not contain a nucleus.

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How platelets are made and how they work: (a) Platelets are formed from large cells called megakaryocytes. The megakaryocyte breaks up into thousands of fragments that become platelets. (b) Platelets are required for clotting of the blood. The platelets collect at a wound site in conjunction with other clotting factors, such as fibrinogen, to form a fibrin clot that prevents blood loss and allows the wound to heal.

The inner surface of blood vessels is lined with a thin layer of cells (endothelial cells) that under normal situations produce chemical messengers that inhibit platelet activation. When the endothelial layer is injured, collagen is exposed, releasing other factors to the bloodstream which attracts platelets to the wound site. When the platelets are activated, they clump together to form a platelet plug (fibrin clot) ( b), releasing their contents. The released contents of the platelets activate other platelets and also interact with other coagulation factors. Coagulation factors (clotting factors) are proteins in the blood plasma that respond in a complex cascade to convert fibrinogen, a water-soluble protein present in blood serum, into fibrin, a non-water soluble protein, which strengthens the platelet plug. Many of the clotting factors require vitamin K to function. Vitamin K deficiency can lead to problems with blood clotting. The plug or clot lasts for a number of days, stopping the loss of blood.

Outside of the body, platelets can also be activated by a negatively-charged surface, such as glass. Non-physiological flow conditions (especially high values of shear stress) caused by arterial stenosis or artificial devices (e.g. mechanical heart valves or blood pumps) can also lead to platelet activation.

Plasma and Serum

Plasma is the liquid component of blood after all of the cells and platelets are removed; serum is plasma after coagulation factors have been removed.

Learning Objectives

Explain the structure and function of plasma and serum

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Plasma, the liquid component of blood, comprises 55 percent of the total blood volume.
  • Plasma is composed of 90 percent water with antibodies, coagulation factors, and other substances such as electrolytes, lipids, and proteins required for maintaining the body.
  • The removal of coagulation factors from plasma leaves a fluid similar to interstitial fluid, known as serum.
  • Albumin, a protein produced in the liver, comprises about one-half of the blood serum proteins; it functions to maintain osmotic pressures and to transport hormones and fatty acids.
  • Immunoglobin is a protein antibody produced in the mucosal lining; it plays an important role in antibody mediated immunity.

Key Terms

  • interstitial fluid: a solution found in tissue spaces that inundates and moistens cells in multicellular animals
  • electrolyte: any of the various ions (such as sodium or chloride) that regulate the electric charge on cells and the flow of water across their membranes
  • viscosity: a quantity expressing the magnitude of internal friction in a fluid, as measured by the force per unit area resisting uniform flow
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Blood sample after centrifugation: The liquid components of blood called plasma (yellow section) can be separated from the erythrocytes (red section) and platelets (white section) by using a centrifuging or spinning the blood.

Plasma and Serum

Plasma, the liquid component of blood, comprises 55 percent of the total blood volume. It can separated by artificially spinning or centrifuging the blood at high rotations of 3000 rpm or higher. The blood cells and platelets that make up about 45 percent of the blood are separated by centrifugal forces to the bottom of a specimen tube, leaving the plasma as the upper layer. Plasma consists of 90 percent water along with various substances required for maintaining the body’s pH, osmotic load, and for protecting the body. The plasma also contains the coagulation factors and antibodies.

Serum, the plasma component of blood which lacks coagulation factors, is similar to interstitial fluid in which the correct composition of key ions acting as electrolytes is essential for normal functioning of muscles and nerves. Other components in the serum include proteins, which assist with maintaining pH and osmotic balance while giving viscosity to the blood; antibodies, or specialized proteins that are important for defense against viruses and bacteria; lipids, including cholesterol, which are transported in the serum; and various other substances including nutrients, hormones, metabolic waste, and external substances, such as drugs, viruses, and bacteria.

Human serum albumin, the most abundant protein in human blood plasma, is synthesized in the liver. Albumin, which constitutes about one-half of the blood serum protein, transports hormones and fatty acids, buffers pH, and maintains osmotic pressures. Immunoglobin, a protein antibody produced in the mucosal lining, plays an important role in antibody mediated immunity.