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Exchange Surfaces

Exchange Surfaces

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Imagine that you're stuck in a room with no airflow. Eventually, you would consume all the oxygen in that room, and fill it with carbon dioxide. The same thing would happen to cells if they weren't able to exchange gases with other cells or with the exterior of the body. Therefore, exchange surfaces are crucial to life, being present in everything from the smallest single-celled organism to the biggest multicellular organisms. They range in complexity, going from merely the membrane of the cell to full-blown organs designed to maximise the efficiency of exchange. Exchange surfaces allow water and other nutrients to enter the organism, and waste to be exchanged.

This article will explore why exchange surfaces are crucial for living organisms, along with describing the key features these surfaces generally possess. We'll start with a more generalised overview and then look at specific exchange systems that the human body shares with many animals.

  • What are exchange surfaces in biology?
  • Characteristics of gaseous exchange surfaces
    • Moisture
    • Heavy blood supply
    • Large surface areas
    • Short transport distance
    • Refreshing the exchange substance
  • Exchange systems
  • Exchange surface adaptations
    • Fish gill adaptations
    • Stomata adaptations
  • Exchange surfaces in the human body
    • The lungs as exchange surfaces in the human body
    • The gastrointestinal tract as exchange surface in the human body

What are exchange surfaces in biology?

An exchange surface in the context of biology is an interface between an organism and its environment at which the exchange of substances occurs. These substances can be gases, nutrients, or waste products.

Exchange surfaces are essential for all organisms, as without them life would not be possible: organisms would die from lack of nutrients or excess of waste products, and an organism would not be able to communicate with its environment fully.

Some examples of exchange surfaces with varying degrees of complexity are the bacterial cell membrane, the stomata of plants or the skin, gills and lungs of animals.

Characteristics of Gaseous Exchange Surfaces

Exchange surfaces exchange gases, water, nutrients from food and many other substances, and they need to be able to do this as efficiently as possible. This means that they must share a set of features that allow the rapid movement of substances into and out of the cell or the body. These shared characteristics of gaseous exchange surfaces include:

  • Moisture
  • Good blood supply
  • Large surface area
  • Short transport distance for substances to move across
  • Refreshing the material substances are being exchanged with (air, food, etc.).

We will look over these in more detail in the following paragraphs.

Moisture in Exchange Surfaces

By keeping the exchange surfaces moist, the exchange rate is significantly increased, especially when the substance being exchanged is a gas, such as in the lungs. By dissolving substances in water, they may more readily diffuse across the barrier of an exchange surface than when they are in their gaseous form. This applies to most exchange surfaces, however, the source of moisture might be different in each exchange surface: in exchange surfaces such as the GI tract, the substance (i.e. food) generally brings its own moisture, but the lungs have their own moisture production.

The transport methods used by exchange surfaces are explored further in our articles on transport in cells, diffusion, osmosis and active transport.

Heavy Blood Supply in Exchange Surfaces

As you may already know, the passive transport of substances relies on the presence of a diffusion gradient, or, in the case of water, an osmotic gradient or a difference in water potential. This is achieved using two methods: a heavy blood supply and constantly refreshing the material substances are being exchanged with. For optimal exchange, both methods are combined.

By making sure exchange surfaces have a heavy blood supply, substances absorbed are readily removed, and fresh blood with no absorbed substances present is supplied in its place, maintaining a higher concentration in the material substances are being absorbed from.

While you may struggle to understand the importance of a heavy blood supply, you could liken it to a shopping spree in your favourite store. You have five minutes to get as many things as you can to the zone at the front of the store, but you can't take them to the front, you are reliant on a team of helpers. Would you rather have one helper or twenty?

Obviously, you would prefer twenty, as they will get much more stuff from the shelves into the zone. In this case, the shelves are the material we are exchanging things to or from, you are the exchange surface, your helpers are the blood supply and the zone is the rest of the body. So now you should be able to see how more blood means more substance absorbed. If your hands are kept full waiting for a helper to return, the gradient has levelled out and so no more items can be removed from the shelf, by emptying your hands as fast as possible, the gradient is better maintained and more items may be removed from the body.

This also serves to function the other way. When waste substances such as carbon dioxide (CO2) are being excreted from the body through the exchange surface, the blood supply brings fresh waste materials to the exchange surface, ensuring that a concentration gradient which guarantees the flow of waste out of the body is maintained.

Large Surface Areas in Exchange Surfaces

Exchange surfaces generally have a large surface area related to the volume of the organism. This is generally achieved either by the organism being small, such as in single-celled organisms, where the surface area of the cell membrane is sufficient to allow enough exchange, or through specialised structures in exchange systems, such as the alveoli of the lungs and villi of the GI tract.

By increasing the surface area, there are more opportunities for things to be exchanged. You can think of it as every square centimetre (cm2) of exchange surface being able to exchange a limited amount per minute. Let's say that each square centimetre of lung tissue can exchange 20 molecules of oxygen per minute. If the lung had a surface of 10 cm2, it could exchange 200 molecules of oxygen per minute. But if it were 20 cm2 it would be able to exchange 400 molecules of oxygen per minute.

Bear in mind that these numbers are completely made up!

By increasing the surface area, you increase the number of square centimetres able to exchange a limited amount of molecules every minute, speeding the exchange. This exchange can occur using either passive or active transport.

To continue our earlier shopping spree analogy, you can think of each square centimetre of exchange surface as an arm to pass things to your helpers. Would you get more things to the zone if you had one arm, two arms or six arms? Six would clearly move more, as you can pass things to six helpers at once, instead of one or two.

Short Transport Distance in Exchange Surfaces

By minimising the distance substances have to travel during an exchange, the rate of exchange is increased, as the particles have to travel less far. In other words, they would pass to the opposite side of the exchange, for example the blood, sooner, and thus be transported away from the exchange spot faster. This helps keep the exchange going at a fast rate.

In our shopping spree, would you rather the helpers could get close to you to pass the items, or that they had to stand 5 metres away, and you had to transport the item to them before they could start carrying it to the zone? By the helpers being closer, you can quickly keep taking items off the shelf, without having to move the items very far before they are removed from your hands. This is why a short diffusion distance is important.

Refreshing the Exchange Substance

Refreshing the exchange substance refers to constantly renewing the substance from which an organism is obtaining nutrients, or to which an organism is excreting waste. This aids in keeping the concentration gradients different and steep enough to ensure fast exchange at the exchange surfaces. In the lungs for example you constantly breathe, refreshing the gases in the lungs, removing CO2 and maintaining a concentration gradient.

When we are excreting waste into a substance through an exchange surface, we obviously want to maintain the gradients as steep as possible, to remove the substances from the body as fast as possible. It's also extremely important to keep absorbing nutrients at a high enough rate to ensure every part of an organism gets enough nutrition to survive.

In our shopping spree, would you rather you had one shelving unit with a limited number of valuable items, but mostly rubbish for the entire five minutes, or constantly be brought new shelving units each time all or most of the valuable items have been removed?

This also impacts substances being taken in by the body. If you simply leave material next to an exchange surface, it will eventually begin to run out of the substances being absorbed. By refreshing the material, you bring a constant supply of new nutrients ready to be absorbed. This is shown with breathing constantly bringing fresh oxygen into the lungs, or peristalsis moving food through the GI tract.

Breathing in and out is known as ventilation, and brings a constant fresh supply of oxygen in while removing carbon dioxide.

Exchange Systems

As described above, some single or very simple multicellular organisms may rely purely on exposure to the environment for some or all of their exchange needs. Once organisms get larger, this stops being the case, and specific exchange surfaces become necessary to ensure organisms can take in sufficient nutrition and excrete enough waste.

An exchange system is a group of cells, tissues or organs that work together to exchange substances between an organ or organism and its environment.

The square-cube law describes the relationship between an organism's size and its surface area. It is this law that creates an upper limit on the size of a single cell, unless it is adapted to have a large surface area relative to its total size, such as by being very long and thin, with multiple nuclei or by being surrounded by support cells like nerve cells are.

The largest single cell is an ostrich egg, which runs about 18x18 cm. Single-celled organisms such as Caulperla taxifolia, a type of algae, can get bigger in some dimensions; however, they have several adaptations to allow them to reach this size, which create exchange surfaces and also possess multiple nuclei.

The square cube law states that as you proportionately scale up an organism, the surface area increases by the square of the multiplier, whereas the volume increases by the cube of the multiplier. This law also applies to the upper limits of building size, describes why elephants have thicker legs than ants, and many other factors of our world.

Square cube law diagram, StudySmarterFig. 1. The square-cube law in an image.

The results of the square-cube law can be shown as the surface area to volume ratio. If the surface area to volume ratio gets too low, the organism must develop exchange systems to allow for efficient substance exchange or risk running out of nutrients or being poisoned by its own waste.

Exchange Surface Adaptations

Efficient exchange surfaces are of extreme importance for the survival of each organism. Thus, exchange surfaces have evolved and adapted to optimise exchanges in the different conditions and situations where they are needed. We will see two examples of this: the gills and the stomata.

Fish Gill Adaptations as Exchange Surfaces

Fish gills are specialised respiratory organs present in aquatic organisms like fish. They are adapted to efficiently absorb oxygen dissolved in water, and excrete waste products from the organism into the water.

Absorbing oxygen from water is harder than absorbing it from the air, as there is a lower percentage of molecular oxygen dissolved in water than in the air that land animals breathe. However, fish (and other aquatic animals) have developed gills to optimise the process. Gills are especially suited for gas exchange in water, as you can see in the table below.

General Exchange Surface CharacteristicsGill Adaptations
MoistureFish live in water, so moisture is guaranteed
Large exchange surfaceInstead of having just one long surface on each side of the fish, each gill has many long filaments from which lamellae sprout. Filaments are like stringy fingers that sprout from the gill, while lamellae are like plate-like structures that protrude from the filaments.This increases the exchange surface immensely.
Heavy blood irrigationThe irrigation of the filaments of the gills is abundant and optimised to help the absorption of O2 and excretion of CO2.
Refreshing the exchange substanceThe water surrounding the fish is constantly passing by, refreshing the exchange substance.Additionally, the flow of water and the flow of blood in the gills go in opposite directions, helping to keep the gradient of O2 and CO2 that allows gas exchange.
Short transport distanceThe wall of the lamellae and the capillaries that irrigate the filaments are only one cell thick.

Table 1. Fish gill adaptations to increase the rate and efficiency of gas exchange.

Fish gill diagram filaments and lamellae StudySmarterFig. 2. Fish gill structure. Notice how there are many filaments per gill, and many lamellae per filament, increasing the exchange surface compared to a single, straight exchange surface.

Stomata Adaptations as Exchange Surfaces

Plants also have gas exchange surfaces that have evolved to optimise the release or absorption of oxygen and carbon dioxide: stomata.

Stomata are pores on the plant's leaves that allow gas exchange between the plant and its surrounding environment.

Plant Stomata Microscope StudySmarterFig. 3. Plant stomata are the big red structures you can observe in the image. Source: Flickr.

What are the adaptations that stomata have to make gas exchange in the leaves work? The major issue for plants is that by exchanging gases with the environment they also increase the loss of water. Think about it: the leaves are the parts of the cell the sun beats down on the most. Therefore, stomata have two adaptations to reduce water loss:

  • Stomata are located on the lower surface of the leaves so that the sun is not directly hitting on the pores through which gases and water will be lost.
  • Stomata can be opened and closed. The aperture of the stomata is regulated by the amount of water the plant has. If it has plenty of water, the stomata can remain open for a longer period of time, but when the plant loses a lot of water, the stomata close to reduce water loss.

Exchange Surfaces in the Human Body

An example of an organism whose surface area to volume ratio is too low to rely simply on exchange with the environment is you and me (remember the square-cube law!). Humans have several systems designed to maximise the exchange of substances into and out of the body, including the lungs and gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

The Lungs as Exchange Surfaces in the Human Body

The lungs are adapted to support gas exchange in a number of ways, each of which adheres to the principles described above:

  • Moist surfaces are provided by the release of a small amount of liquid into the interior of the lungs, which contains a substance known as surfactant. This is made up of proteins and lipids, which reduce surface tension in the lungs. This aids the lungs in expanding, limits the pull of liquids from the capillaries into the lungs, moistens the air we breathe and contributes to innate immunity. This allows gases to dissolve, meaning they can more effectively diffuse into the body.
  • A good blood supply is provided by many capillaries surrounding each alveolus, which rapidly exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the air in the lungs, before carrying them elsewhere around the body, bringing fresh deoxygenated blood loaded with carbon dioxide ready to exchange more.
  • The large surface area is provided by the structure of the lungs. The airways gradually branch into sets of smaller and smaller tubes, going from the trachea, into the descending tiers of bronchi and then bronchioles where the air eventually flows into sacs known as alveoli. These small, expandable sacs are wrapped by capillaries, and provide a surface area of ~50-70 square metres.
  • The short diffusion distance is provided by the thin nature of the epithelial cells lining the alveoli, along with the single-celled wall of the capillary. This means that oxygen and carbon dioxide must only move across two cells before they enter the bloodstream and are carried away.
  • Continuous refreshing of the material being exchanged is provided by constantly breathing, removing air filled with carbon dioxide and replacing it with oxygen-filled fresh air.

This topic is explored further in our full article on gas exchange in the lungs.

Alveoli gas exchange diagram StudySmarterFig. 2. The alveoli, the main exchange surface of the lungs

The Gastrointestinal Tract as Exchange Surface in the Human Body

The GI tract absorbs nutrients and water from food and liquids we consume. Like the lungs, it has several adaptations to do this:

  • Moist surfaces are provided by the liquid we consume being mixed with food, along with the release of mucus and other moisture-filled substances into the GI tract.
  • Like in the lungs, a good blood supply is provided by capillaries running up into each villus within the intestine, along with the regular circular folds within the intestines.
  • A large surface area is provided by the villi, small finger-like projections into the lumen of the small intestine, along with the circular folds that the walls of the intestine possess. The intestines are also incredibly long, meaning the transit time of material through them is extended, increasing the surface area material is exposed to.
  • Short diffusion distances are provided by the capillaries and lacteals, which extend into the length of each villus, meaning that, like in the alveoli, substances must only cross two cells to enter the bloodstream.
  • Food moves along the GI tract, meaning that fresh material is constantly being brought in with fresh supplies of nutrients and water.

Intestinal villi diagram StudySmarterFig. 3 - The villi of the small intestine, which provides the bulk of the surface area of the GI tract

The GI tract, unlike the lungs, also uses active transport to ensure it can absorb substances regardless of concentration gradients, maximising the efficiency of nutrient extraction from resources we consume.

Active transport requires energy and is when substances are transported against a concentration gradient.

This is explored and explained further in our full article on the human digestive system.

Exchange Surfaces - Key takeaways

  • Exchange surfaces allow the entry and exit of substances from an organism.
  • Exchange surfaces may exchange gases, water, nutrients from food and many other substances, and they need to be able to do this as efficiently as possible.
  • They must be moist, have a good blood supply, a large surface area and a short diffusion distance, whilst being constantly exposed to new material to exchange with.
  • Dedicated exchange systems become necessary in organisms above a certain size due to the square-cube law, meaning simple diffusion in and out from regular surfaces is not enough.
  • Exchange systems focus on maintaining a gradient for substances to flow down, allowing efficient absorbance or excretion.
  • Exchange systems in humans include the lungs, GI tract and kidneys.

Frequently Asked Questions about Exchange Surfaces

Exchange surfaces are surfaces specialised for the exchange of gases between one area and another, generally for the intake of oxygen and removal of waste gases from the bloodstream.

An example of an exchange surface within a multicellular organism is the alveoli within the lungs. 

Exchange surfaces generally possess a large surface area, short diffusion distance, heavy blood irrigation to keep a steep concentration gradient and thus maximise the exchange rate of gases from one area to another. Exchange surfaces are generally also moist to allow gases to dissolve ready for diffusion. 

One of the exchange surfaces in humans is the lungs, more specifically the alveoli within. 

The four key characteristics of an exchange surface are:

  • a large surface area,
  • short diffusion distance,
  • steep concentration gradient (through heavy blood flow and refreshing the exchange substance), and
  • moist surface. 

Final Exchange Surfaces Quiz

Exchange Surfaces Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What gases are typically exchanged at exchange surfaces?

Show answer


Oxygen and carbon dioxide are typically exchanged at exchange surfaces

Show question


Do large organisms have a large or small surface area to volume ratio?

Show answer


Large organisms have a small surface area to volume ratio.

Show question


Which type of organisms require specialised exchange surfaces?

Show answer


Larger organisms require specialised exchange surfaces. This is because they have small surface area to volume ratios

Show question


What adaptations do specialised exchange surfaces require?

Show answer


Exchange surfaces need to have large surface areas, short diffusion distances and steep concentration gradients.

Show question


How are the lungs adapted to have a large surface area?

Show answer


The lungs have a large surface area due to the presence of alveoli. These alveoli are flattened curved sacs and there are millions of alveoli per lungs which ensures a large surface area for gas exchange.

Show question


How is a short diffusion distance maintained in the lungs?

Show answer


In the lungs, the alveoli are one cell thick. The capillaries surrounding the alveoli are also only one cell thick. This ensures that a short diffusion distance is maintained.

Show question


How is a steep concentration gradient maintained in the lungs?

Show answer


A steep concentration gradient is maintained by the extensive network of capillaries that surround the alveoli. Ventilation also ensures that this steep concentration gradient is maintained.

Show question


Why is a steep concentration gradient needed?

Show answer


A steep concentration gradient is needed as it increases the rate of diffusion of gases and so increases the rate of gas exchange. The steeper the gradient, the faster the rate of diffusion.

Show question


How do gases move across exchange surfaces?

Show answer


Gases move by diffusion. This is the process of moving from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration passively.

Show question


Which of the following is ensured by the extensive network of capillaries outside of the alveoli?

Show answer


Large surface area

Show question


Which of the following is ensured by the presence of millions the alveoli?

Show answer


Large surface area

Show question


Which organism is likely to have the largest surface area to volume ratio?

Show answer



Show question


Which organism requires a specialised exchange surface?

Show answer


Organisms with a large surface area to volume ratio

Show question


Which gases are exchanged between the alveoli and capillaries?

Show answer


Oxygen and carbon monoxide

Show question


Why are exchange surfaces generally kept moist?

Show answer


To allow gases to dissolve ready for diffusion. 

Show question


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