respiration, process by which an organism exchanges gases with its environment. The term now refers to the overall process by which oxygen is abstracted from air and is transported to the cells for the oxidation of organic molecules while carbon dioxide (CO2) and water, the products of oxidation, are returned to the environment. In single-celled organisms, gas exchange occurs directly between cell and environment, i.e., at the cell membrane. In plants, gas exchange with the environment occurs in special organs, the stomates, found mostly in the leaves (see leaf; transpiration).
Organisms that utilize respiration to obtain energy are aerobic, or oxygen-dependent. Some organisms can live in the absence of oxygen and obtain energy from fuel molecules solely by fermentation or glycolysis; these anaerobic processes are much less efficient, since the fuel molecules are merely converted to end products such as lactic acid and ethanol, with relatively little energy-rich ATP produced during these conversions.
For individual respiratory organs, see separate articles.
In complex animals, where the cells of internal organs are distant from the external environment, respiratory systems facilitate the passage of gases to and from internal tissues. In such systems, when there is a difference in pressure of a particular gas on opposite sides of a membrane, the gas diffuses from the side of greater pressure to the side of lesser pressure, and each gas is transported independently of other gases. For example, in tissues where carbon dioxide concentration is high and oxygen concentration is low as a result of active metabolism, oxygen diffuses into the tissue and carbon dioxide diffuses out.
In lower animals, gas diffusion takes place through a moist surface membrane, as in flatworms; through the thin body wall, as in earthworms; through air ducts, or tracheae, as in insects; or through specialized tracheal gills, as in aquatic insect larvae. In the gills of fish the blood vessels are exposed directly to the external (aquatic) environment. Oxygen–carbon dioxide exchange occurs between the surrounding water and the blood within the vessels; the blood carries gases to and from tissues.
In other vertebrates, including humans, gas exchange takes place in the lungs. Breathing is the mechanical procedure in which air reaches the lungs. During inhalation muscular action lowers the diaphragm and raises the ribs; atmospheric pressure forces air into the enlarged chest cavity. In exhalation the muscles relax and the air is expelled. This combined rhythmic action takes place about 12–16 times per minute when the body is at rest. The rate of breathing is controlled mainly by a respiratory center in the brain stem that responds to changes in the level of hydrogen ion and carbon dioxide in the blood, as well as to other factors such as stress, temperature changes, and motor activities. Some residual air always remains in the lungs, but with each breath an additional quantity of fresh air, called tidal air, is inhaled. Artificial respiration is used for respiratory failure.
In higher vertebrates, oxygen-poor, carbon dioxide–rich blood from the right side of the heart is pumped into the lungs and flows through the net of capillaries surrounding the alveoli, the cup-shaped air sacs of the lungs; oxygen diffuses across the capillary membranes into the blood, and carbon dioxide diffuses in the opposite direction. The oxygen combines with the protein hemoglobin in red blood cells as the blood returns to the left side of the heart, is pumped throughout the body, and is released into tissue cells (see circulatory system). Carbon dioxide passes in the opposite direction, from the cells of the tissues to the red blood cells. In the blood, carbon dioxide exists in three forms: as bicarbonate ion, in which form it serves as a buffer, keeping blood acidity fairly constant; combined with hemoglobin; and as the dissolved free gas. Of these, only free carbon dioxide gas is available for diffusion from the blood into the lungs.
In biochemistry, respiration refers to the series of biochemical oxidations in which organic molecules are converted to carbon dioxide and water while the chemical energy thus obtained is trapped in a form useful to the cell. Biochemical respiration occurs in both plant and animal cells. Carbohydrates, amino acids, and fatty acids—the organic fuel molecules of the cell—can be converted to acetyl CoA, a derivative of acetic acid and coenzyme A.
Acetyl CoA then enters a series of reactions in the mitochondria, organelles in the cell's cytoplasm. The series of reactions, known as the Krebs cycle, converts the acetic acid portion of acetyl CoA to carbon dioxide, protons, and hydride ions, the latter usually as part of the coenzyme NADH. This molecule is oxidized back to NAD when it donates the hydride ion to the series of enzymes known as the electron transport chain. In a process called oxidative phosphorylation, each electron transport enzyme is in turn reduced (receives the hydride ion), then oxidized (donates a hydride ion to the next enzyme in the series), and the chemical energy liberated in this series of reactions is coupled to the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and phosphoric acid.
ATP, the cell's form of energy storage and supply, furnishes the chemical energy needed for muscle contraction, protein synthesis, active transport of substances across membranes, and electrical impulses. At the end of the electron transport chain, a hydride ion is donated to an atom of oxygen; this pair, together with a proton from the surrounding solution, forms a molecule of water. Thus, in the overall process of cellular respiration, the fuel molecules are converted to carbon dioxide and water while the chemical energy gained is trapped in a useful form as ATP.