By the end of this section, you will have completed the following objectives:
- Explain the processes of digestion and absorption
- Compare and contrast different types of digestive systems
- Explain the specialized functions of the organs involved in processing food in the body
- Describe the ways in which organs work together to digest food and absorb nutrients
Animals obtain their nutrition from the consumption of other organisms. Depending on their diet, animals can be classified into the following categories: plant eaters (herbivores), meat eaters (carnivores), and those that eat both plants and animals (omnivores). The nutrients and macromolecules present in food are not immediately accessible to the cells. There are a number of processes that modify food within the animal body in order to make the nutrients and organic molecules accessible for cellular function. As animals evolved in complexity of form and function, their digestive systems have also evolved to accommodate their various dietary needs.
Herbivores, Omnivores, and Carnivores
Herbivores are animals whose primary food source is plant-based. Examples of herbivores, as shown in Figure 1 include vertebrates like deer, koalas, and some bird species, as well as invertebrates such as crickets and caterpillars. These animals have evolved digestive systems capable of handling large amounts of plant material. Herbivores can be further classified into frugivores (fruit-eaters), granivores (seed eaters), nectivores (nectar feeders), and folivores (leaf eaters).
Carnivores are animals that eat other animals. The word carnivore is derived from Latin and literally means “meat eater.” Wild cats such as lions, shown in Figure 2a and tigers are examples of vertebrate carnivores, as are snakes and sharks, while invertebrate carnivores include sea stars, spiders, and ladybugs, shown in Figure 2b. Obligate carnivores are those that rely entirely on animal flesh to obtain their nutrients; examples of obligate carnivores are members of the cat family, such as lions and cheetahs. Facultative carnivores are those that also eat non-animal food in addition to animal food. Note that there is no clear line that differentiates facultative carnivores from omnivores; dogs would be considered facultative carnivores.
Omnivores are animals that eat both plant- and animal-derived food. In Latin, omnivore means to eat everything. Humans, bears (shown in Figure 3a), and chickens are example of vertebrate omnivores; invertebrate omnivores include cockroaches and crayfish (shown in Figure 3b).
Invertebrate Digestive Systems
Animals have evolved different types of digestive systems to aid in the digestion of the different foods they consume. The simplest example is that of a gastrovascular cavity and is found in organisms with only one opening for digestion. Platyhelminthes (flatworms), Ctenophora (comb jellies), and Cnidaria (coral, jelly fish, and sea anemones) use this type of digestion. Gastrovascular cavities, as shown in Figure 4a, are typically a blind tube or cavity with only one opening, the “mouth”, which also serves as an “anus”. Ingested material enters the mouth and passes through a hollow, tubular cavity. Cells within the cavity secrete digestive enzymes that break down the food. The food particles are engulfed by the cells lining the gastrovascular cavity.
The alimentary canal, shown in Figure 4b, is a more advanced system: it consists of one tube with a mouth at one end and an anus at the other. Earthworms are an example of an animal with an alimentary canal. Once the food is ingested through the mouth, it passes through the esophagus and is stored in an organ called the crop; then it passes into the gizzard where it is churned and digested. From the gizzard, the food passes through the intestine, the nutrients are absorbed, and the waste is eliminated as feces, called castings, through the anus.
Vertebrate Digestive Systems
Vertebrates have evolved more complex digestive systems to adapt to their dietary needs. Some animals have a single stomach, while others have multi-chambered stomachs. Birds have developed a digestive system adapted to eating unmasticated food.
Monogastric: Single-chambered Stomach
As the word monogastric suggests, this type of digestive system consists of one (“mono”) stomach chamber (“gastric”). Humans and many animals have a monogastric digestive system as illustrated in Figure 5a and 5b. The process of digestion begins with the mouth and the intake of food. The teeth play an important role in masticating (chewing) or physically breaking down food into smaller particles. The enzymes present in saliva also begin to chemically break down food. The esophagus is a long tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Using peristalsis, or wave-like smooth muscle contractions, the muscles of the esophagus push the food towards the stomach. In order to speed up the actions of enzymes in the stomach, the stomach is an extremely acidic environment, with a pH between 1.5 and 2.5. The gastric juices, which include enzymes in the stomach, act on the food particles and continue the process of digestion. Further breakdown of food takes place in the small intestine where enzymes produced by the liver, the small intestine, and the pancreas continue the process of digestion. The nutrients are absorbed into the blood stream across the epithelial cells lining the walls of the small intestines. The waste material travels on to the large intestine where water is absorbed and the drier waste material is compacted into feces; it is stored until it is excreted through the rectum.
Birds face special challenges when it comes to obtaining nutrition from food. They do not have teeth and so their digestive system, shown in Figure 6, must be able to process un-masticated food. Birds have evolved a variety of beak types that reflect the vast variety in their diet, ranging from seeds and insects to fruits and nuts. Because most birds fly, their metabolic rates are high in order to efficiently process food and keep their body weight low. The stomach of birds has two chambers: the proventriculus, where gastric juices are produced to digest the food before it enters the stomach, and the gizzard, where the food is stored, soaked, and mechanically ground. The undigested material forms food pellets that are sometimes regurgitated. Most of the chemical digestion and absorption happens in the intestine and the waste is excreted through the cloaca.
Birds have a highly efficient, simplified digestive system. Recent fossil evidence has shown that the evolutionary divergence of birds from other land animals was characterized by streamlining and simplifying the digestive system. Unlike many other animals, birds do not have teeth to chew their food. In place of lips, they have sharp pointy beaks. The horny beak, lack of jaws, and the smaller tongue of the birds can be traced back to their dinosaur ancestors. The emergence of these changes seems to coincide with the inclusion of seeds in the bird diet. Seed-eating birds have beaks that are shaped for grabbing seeds and the two-compartment stomach allows for delegation of tasks. Since birds need to remain light in order to fly, their metabolic rates are very high, which means they digest their food very quickly and need to eat often. Contrast this with the ruminants, where the digestion of plant matter takes a very long time.
Ruminants are mainly herbivores like cows, sheep, and goats, whose entire diet consists of eating large amounts of roughage or fiber. They have evolved digestive systems that help them digest vast amounts of cellulose. An interesting feature of the ruminants’ mouth is that they do not have upper incisor teeth. They use their lower teeth, tongue and lips to tear and chew their food. From the mouth, the food travels to the esophagus and on to the stomach.
To help digest the large amount of plant material, the stomach of the ruminants is a multi-chambered organ, as illustrated in Figure 7. The four compartments of the stomach are called the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. These chambers contain many microbes that break down cellulose and ferment ingested food. The abomasum is the “true” stomach and is the equivalent of the monogastric stomach chamber where gastric juices are secreted. The four-compartment gastric chamber provides larger space and the microbial support necessary to digest plant material in ruminants. The fermentation process produces large amounts of gas in the stomach chamber, which must be eliminated. As in other animals, the small intestine plays an important role in nutrient absorption, and the large intestine helps in the elimination of waste.
Some animals, such as camels and alpacas, are pseudo-ruminants. They eat a lot of plant material and roughage. Digesting plant material is not easy because plant cell walls contain the polymeric sugar molecule cellulose. The digestive enzymes of these animals cannot break down cellulose, but microorganisms present in the digestive system can. Therefore, the digestive system must be able to handle large amounts of roughage and break down the cellulose. Pseudo-ruminants have a three-chamber stomach in the digestive system. However, their cecum—a pouched organ at the beginning of the large intestine containing many microorganisms that are necessary for the digestion of plant materials—is large and is the site where the roughage is fermented and digested. These animals do not have a rumen but have an omasum, abomasum, and reticulum.
Parts of the Digestive System
The vertebrate digestive system is designed to facilitate the transformation of food matter into the nutrient components that sustain organisms.
The oral cavity, or mouth, is the point of entry of food into the digestive system, illustrated in Figure 8. The food consumed is broken into smaller particles by mastication, the chewing action of the teeth. All mammals have teeth and can chew their food.
The extensive chemical process of digestion begins in the mouth. As food is being chewed, saliva, produced by the salivary glands, mixes with the food. Saliva is a watery substance produced in the mouths of many animals. There are three major glands that secrete saliva—the parotid, the submandibular, and the sublingual. Saliva contains mucus that moistens food and buffers the pH of the food. Saliva also contains immunoglobulins and lysozymes, which have antibacterial action to reduce tooth decay by inhibiting growth of some bacteria. Saliva also contains an enzyme called salivary amylase that begins the process of converting starches in the food into a disaccharide called maltose. Another enzyme called lipase is produced by the cells in the tongue. Lipases are a class of enzymes that can break down triglycerides. The lingual lipase begins the breakdown of fat components in the food. The chewing and wetting action provided by the teeth and saliva prepare the food into a mass called the bolus for swallowing. The tongue helps in swallowing—moving the bolus from the mouth into the pharynx. The pharynx opens to two passageways: the trachea, which leads to the lungs, and the esophagus, which leads to the stomach. The trachea has an opening called the glottis, which is covered by a cartilaginous flap called the epiglottis. When swallowing, the epiglottis closes the glottis and food passes into the esophagus and not the trachea. This arrangement allows food to be kept out of the trachea.
A ring-like muscle called a sphincter forms valves in the digestive system. The gastro-esophageal sphincter is located at the stomach end of the esophagus. In response to swallowing and the pressure exerted by the bolus of food, this sphincter opens, and the bolus enters the stomach. When there is no swallowing action, this sphincter is shut and prevents the contents of the stomach from traveling up the esophagus. Many animals have a true sphincter; however, in humans, there is no true sphincter, but the esophagus remains closed when there is no swallowing action. Acid reflux or “heartburn” occurs when the acidic digestive juices escape into the esophagus.
A large part of digestion occurs in the stomach, shown in Figure 10. The stomach is a saclike organ that secretes gastric digestive juices. The pH in the stomach is between 1.5 and 2.5. This highly acidic environment is required for the chemical breakdown of food and the extraction of nutrients. When empty, the stomach is a rather small organ; however, it can expand to up to 20 times its resting size when filled with food. This characteristic is particularly useful for animals that need to eat when food is available.
Which of the following statements about the digestive system is false?
- Chyme is a mixture of food and digestive juices that is produced in the stomach.
- Food enters the large intestine before the small intestine.
- In the small intestine, chyme mixes with bile, which emulsifies fats.
- The stomach is separated from the small intestine by the pyloric sphincter.
Statement 2 is true.
The stomach is also the major site for protein digestion in animals other than ruminants. Protein digestion is mediated by an enzyme called pepsin in the stomach chamber. Pepsin is secreted by the chief cells in the stomach in an inactive form called pepsinogen. Pepsin breaks peptide bonds and cleaves proteins into smaller polypeptides; it also helps activate more pepsinogen, starting a positive feedback mechanism that generates more pepsin. Another cell type—parietal cells—secrete hydrogen and chloride ions, which combine in the lumen to form hydrochloric acid, the primary acidic component of the stomach juices. Hydrochloric acid helps to convert the inactive pepsinogen to pepsin. The highly acidic environment also kills many microorganisms in the food and, combined with the action of the enzyme pepsin, results in the hydrolysis of protein in the food. Chemical digestion is facilitated by the churning action of the stomach. Contraction and relaxation of smooth muscles mixes the stomach contents about every 20 minutes. The partially digested food and gastric juice mixture is called chyme. Chyme passes from the stomach to the small intestine. Further protein digestion takes place in the small intestine. Gastric emptying occurs within two to six hours after a meal. Only a small amount of chyme is released into the small intestine at a time. The movement of chyme from the stomach into the small intestine is regulated by the pyloric sphincter.
When digesting protein and some fats, the stomach lining must be protected from getting digested by pepsin. There are two points to consider when describing how the stomach lining is protected. First, as previously mentioned, the enzyme pepsin is synthesized in the inactive form. This protects the chief cells, because pepsinogen does not have the same enzyme functionality of pepsin. Second, the stomach has a thick mucus lining that protects the underlying tissue from the action of the digestive juices. When this mucus lining is ruptured, ulcers can form in the stomach. Ulcers are open wounds in or on an organ caused by bacteria (Helicobacter pylori) when the mucus lining is ruptured and fails to reform.
Chyme moves from the stomach to the small intestine. The small intestine is the organ where the digestion of protein, fats, and carbohydrates is completed. The small intestine is a long tube-like organ with a highly folded surface containing finger-like projections called the villi. The apical surface of each villus has many microscopic projections called microvilli. These structures, illustrated in Figure 11, are lined with epithelial cells on the luminal side and allow for the nutrients to be absorbed from the digested food and absorbed into the blood stream on the other side. The villi and microvilli, with their many folds, increase the surface area of the intestine and increase absorption efficiency of the nutrients. Absorbed nutrients in the blood are carried into the hepatic portal vein, which leads to the liver. There, the liver regulates the distribution of nutrients to the rest of the body and removes toxic substances, including drugs, alcohol, and some pathogens.
Which of the following statements about the small intestine is false?
- Absorptive cells that line the small intestine have microvilli, small projections that increase surface area and aid in the absorption of food.
- The inside of the small intestine has many folds, called villi.
- Microvilli are lined with blood vessels as well as lymphatic vessels.
- The inside of the small intestine is called the lumen.
Statement 3 is false.
The human small intestine is over 6m long and is divided into three parts: the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum. The “C-shaped,” fixed part of the small intestine is called the duodenum and is shown in Figure 10. The duodenum is separated from the stomach by the pyloric sphincter which opens to allow chyme to move from the stomach to the duodenum. In the duodenum, chyme is mixed with pancreatic juices in an alkaline solution rich in bicarbonate that neutralizes the acidity of chyme and acts as a buffer. Pancreatic juices also contain several digestive enzymes. Digestive juices from the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder, as well as from gland cells of the intestinal wall itself, enter the duodenum. Bile is produced in the liver and stored and concentrated in the gallbladder. Bile contains bile salts which emulsify lipids while the pancreas produces enzymes that catabolize starches, disaccharides, proteins, and fats. These digestive juices break down the food particles in the chyme into glucose, triglycerides, and amino acids. Some chemical digestion of food takes place in the duodenum. Absorption of fatty acids also takes place in the duodenum.
The second part of the small intestine is called the jejunum, shown in Figure 10. Here, hydrolysis of nutrients is continued while most of the carbohydrates and amino acids are absorbed through the intestinal lining. The bulk of chemical digestion and nutrient absorption occurs in the jejunum.
The ileum, also illustrated in Figure 10 is the last part of the small intestine and here the bile salts and vitamins are absorbed into blood stream. The undigested food is sent to the colon from the ileum via peristaltic movements of the muscle. The ileum ends and the large intestine begins at the ileocecal valve. The vermiform, “worm-like,” appendix is located at the ileocecal valve. The appendix of humans secretes no enzymes and has an insignificant role in immunity.
Rectum and Anus
The rectum is the terminal end of the large intestine, as shown in Figure 12. The primary role of the rectum is to store the feces until defecation. The feces are propelled using peristaltic movements during elimination. The anus is an opening at the far-end of the digestive tract and is the exit point for the waste material. Two sphincters between the rectum and anus control elimination: the inner sphincter is involuntary and the outer sphincter is voluntary.
The organs discussed above are the organs of the digestive tract through which food passes. Accessory organs are organs that add secretions (enzymes) that catabolize food into nutrients. Accessory organs include salivary glands, the liver, the pancreas, and the gallbladder. The liver, pancreas, and gallbladder are regulated by hormones in response to the food consumed.
The liver is the largest internal organ in humans and it plays a very important role in digestion of fats and detoxifying blood. The liver produces bile, a digestive juice that is required for the breakdown of fatty components of the food in the duodenum. The liver also processes the vitamins and fats and synthesizes many plasma proteins.
The pancreas is another important gland that secretes digestive juices. The chyme produced from the stomach is highly acidic in nature; the pancreatic juices contain high levels of bicarbonate, an alkali that neutralizes the acidic chyme. Additionally, the pancreatic juices contain a large variety of enzymes that are required for the digestion of protein and carbohydrates.
The gallbladder is a small organ that aids the liver by storing bile and concentrating bile salts. When chyme containing fatty acids enters the duodenum, the bile is secreted from the gallbladder into the duodenum.
Different animals have evolved different types of digestive systems specialized to meet their dietary needs. Humans and many other animals have monogastric digestive systems with a single-chambered stomach. Birds have evolved a digestive system that includes a gizzard where the food is crushed into smaller pieces. This compensates for their inability to masticate. Ruminants that consume large amounts of plant material have a multi-chambered stomach that digests roughage. Pseudo-ruminants have similar digestive processes as ruminants but do not have the four-compartment stomach. Processing food involves ingestion (eating), digestion (mechanical and enzymatic breakdown of large molecules), absorption (cellular uptake of nutrients), and elimination (removal of undigested waste as feces).
Many organs work together to digest food and absorb nutrients. The mouth is the point of ingestion and the location where both mechanical and chemical breakdown of food begins. Saliva contains an enzyme called amylase that breaks down carbohydrates. The food bolus travels through the esophagus by peristaltic movements to the stomach. The stomach has an extremely acidic environment. An enzyme called pepsin digests protein in the stomach. Further digestion and absorption take place in the small intestine. The large intestine reabsorbs water from the undigested food and stores waste until elimination.