Transport of Gases

The other major activity in the lungs is the process of respiration, the process of gas exchange. The function of respiration is to provide oxygen for use by body cells during cellular respiration and to eliminate carbon dioxide, a waste product of cellular respiration, from the body. In order for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to occur, both gases must be transported between the external and internal respiration sites. Although carbon dioxide is more soluble than oxygen in blood, both gases require a specialized transport system for the majority of the gas molecules to be moved between the lungs and other tissues.

Oxygen Transport in the Blood

Erythrocyte and Hemoglobin

Figure 1. Hemoglobin consists of four subunits, each of which contains one molecule of iron.

Even though oxygen is transported via the blood, you may recall that oxygen is not very soluble in liquids. A small amount of oxygen does dissolve in the blood and is transported in the bloodstream, but it is only about 1.5% of the total amount. The majority of oxygen molecules are carried from the lungs to the body’s tissues by a specialized transport system, which relies on the erythrocyte—the red blood cell. Erythrocytes contain hemoglobin, which serves to bind oxygen molecules to the erythrocyte (Figure 1). Heme is the portion of hemoglobin that contains iron, hemoglobin’s metal ion cofactor, and it is heme that binds oxygen. One erythrocyte contains four iron ions, and because of this, each erythrocyte is capable of carrying up to four molecules of oxygen. As oxygen diffuses across the respiratory membrane from the alveolus to the capillary, it also diffuses into the red blood cell and is bound by hemoglobin. The following reversible chemical reaction describes the production of the final product, oxyhemoglobin (Hb–O2), which is formed when oxygen binds to hemoglobin. Oxyhemoglobin is a bright red-colored molecule that contributes to the bright red color of oxygenated blood.

Hb + O2 ↔ Hb − O2

In this formula, Hb represents reduced hemoglobin, that is, hemoglobin that does not have oxygen bound to it. There are multiple factors involved in how readily heme binds to and dissociates from oxygen, which will be discussed in the subsequent sections.

Function of Hemoglobin

Hemoglobin is composed of four subunits, a protein structure referred to as a quaternary structure. Each of the four subunits that make up hemoglobin is arranged in a ring-like fashion with an iron atom covalently bound to the heme in the center of each subunit. Binding of the first oxygen molecule causes a conformational change in hemoglobin that allows the second molecule of oxygen to bind more readily. As each molecule of oxygen is bound, it further facilitates the binding of the next molecule, until all four heme sites are occupied by oxygen. The opposite occurs as well: After the first oxygen molecule dissociates and is “dropped off” at the tissues, the next oxygen molecule dissociates more readily. When all four heme sites are occupied, the hemoglobin is said to be saturated. When one to three heme sites are occupied, the hemoglobin is said to be partially saturated. Therefore, when considering the blood as a whole, the percent of the available heme units that are bound to oxygen at a given time is called hemoglobin saturation. Hemoglobin saturation of 100 percent means that every heme unit in all of the erythrocytes of the body is bound to oxygen. In a healthy individual with normal hemoglobin levels, hemoglobin saturation generally ranges from 95 percent to 99 percent.

Carbon Dioxide Transport in the Blood

Carbon dioxide is transported by three major mechanisms. The first mechanism of carbon dioxide transport is by blood plasma, as some carbon dioxide molecules dissolve in the blood. The second mechanism is transport in the form of bicarbonate (HCO3), which also dissolves in plasma. The third mechanism of carbon dioxide transport is similar to the transport of oxygen by erythrocytes.

Carbon Dioxide Transport

Figure 4. Carbon dioxide is transported by three different methods: (a) in erythrocytes; (b) after forming carbonic acid (H2CO3), which is dissolved in plasma; (c) and in plasma.

Dissolved Carbon Dioxide

Although carbon dioxide is not considered to be highly soluble in blood, a small fraction—about 7 to 10 percent—of the carbon dioxide that diffuses into the blood from the tissues dissolves in plasma. The dissolved carbon dioxide then travels in the bloodstream and when the blood reaches the pulmonary capillaries, the dissolved carbon dioxide diffuses across the respiratory membrane into the alveoli, where it is then exhaled during pulmonary ventilation.

Bicarbonate Buffer

A large fraction—about 70 percent—of the carbon dioxide molecules that diffuse into the blood is transported to the lungs as bicarbonate. Most bicarbonate is produced in erythrocytes after carbon dioxide diffuses into the capillaries, and subsequently into red blood cells. Carbonic anhydrase (CA) causes carbon dioxide and water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), which dissociates into two ions: bicarbonate (HCO3) and hydrogen (H+). The following formula depicts this reaction:

CO2 + H2O ↔ H2CO3 ↔ H+ + HCO3

At the pulmonary capillaries, the chemical reaction that produced bicarbonate (shown above) is reversed, and carbon dioxide and water are the products. Hydrogen ions and bicarbonate ions join to form carbonic acid, which is converted into carbon dioxide and water by carbonic anhydrase. Carbon dioxide diffuses out of the erythrocytes and into the plasma, where it can further diffuse across the respiratory membrane into the alveoli to be exhaled during pulmonary ventilation.


About 20 percent of carbon dioxide is bound by hemoglobin and is transported to the lungs. Carbon dioxide does not bind to iron as oxygen does; instead, carbon dioxide binds to amino acids of the globin portions of hemoglobin to form carbaminohemoglobin, which forms when hemoglobin and carbon dioxide bind. When hemoglobin is not transporting oxygen, it tends to have a darker maroon tone to it, creating the color typical of deoxygenated blood.

Similar to the transport of oxygen by heme, the binding and dissociation of carbon dioxide to and from hemoglobin is dependent on the partial pressure of carbon dioxide. Because carbon dioxide is released from the lungs, blood that leaves the lungs and reaches body tissues has a lower partial pressure of carbon dioxide than is found in the tissues. As a result, carbon dioxide leaves the tissues because of its higher partial pressure, enters the blood, and then moves into red blood cells, binding to hemoglobin. In contrast, in the pulmonary capillaries, the partial pressure of carbon dioxide is high compared to within the alveoli. As a result, carbon dioxide dissociates readily from hemoglobin and diffuses across the respiratory membrane into the air.