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Anatomy and Physiology

18.3 Erythrocytes

Anatomy and Physiology18.3 Erythrocytes
  1. Preface
  2. Unit 1: Levels of Organization
    1. 1 An Introduction to the Human Body
      1. Introduction
      2. 1.1 Overview of Anatomy and Physiology
      3. 1.2 Structural Organization of the Human Body
      4. 1.3 Functions of Human Life
      5. 1.4 Requirements for Human Life
      6. 1.5 Homeostasis
      7. 1.6 Anatomical Terminology
      8. 1.7 Medical Imaging
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Review
      11. Interactive Link Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 2 The Chemical Level of Organization
      1. Introduction
      2. 2.1 Elements and Atoms: The Building Blocks of Matter
      3. 2.2 Chemical Bonds
      4. 2.3 Chemical Reactions
      5. 2.4 Inorganic Compounds Essential to Human Functioning
      6. 2.5 Organic Compounds Essential to Human Functioning
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Review
      9. Interactive Link Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 3 The Cellular Level of Organization
      1. Introduction
      2. 3.1 The Cell Membrane
      3. 3.2 The Cytoplasm and Cellular Organelles
      4. 3.3 The Nucleus and DNA Replication
      5. 3.4 Protein Synthesis
      6. 3.5 Cell Growth and Division
      7. 3.6 Cellular Differentiation
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Review
      10. Interactive Link Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 4 The Tissue Level of Organization
      1. Introduction
      2. 4.1 Types of Tissues
      3. 4.2 Epithelial Tissue
      4. 4.3 Connective Tissue Supports and Protects
      5. 4.4 Muscle Tissue and Motion
      6. 4.5 Nervous Tissue Mediates Perception and Response
      7. 4.6 Tissue Injury and Aging
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Review
      10. Interactive Link Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
  3. Unit 2: Support and Movement
    1. 5 The Integumentary System
      1. Introduction
      2. 5.1 Layers of the Skin
      3. 5.2 Accessory Structures of the Skin
      4. 5.3 Functions of the Integumentary System
      5. 5.4 Diseases, Disorders, and Injuries of the Integumentary System
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Review
      8. Interactive Link Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 6 Bone Tissue and the Skeletal System
      1. Introduction
      2. 6.1 The Functions of the Skeletal System
      3. 6.2 Bone Classification
      4. 6.3 Bone Structure
      5. 6.4 Bone Formation and Development
      6. 6.5 Fractures: Bone Repair
      7. 6.6 Exercise, Nutrition, Hormones, and Bone Tissue
      8. 6.7 Calcium Homeostasis: Interactions of the Skeletal System and Other Organ Systems
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Review
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 7 Axial Skeleton
      1. Introduction
      2. 7.1 Divisions of the Skeletal System
      3. 7.2 The Skull
      4. 7.3 The Vertebral Column
      5. 7.4 The Thoracic Cage
      6. 7.5 Embryonic Development of the Axial Skeleton
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Review
      9. Interactive Link Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 8 The Appendicular Skeleton
      1. Introduction
      2. 8.1 The Pectoral Girdle
      3. 8.2 Bones of the Upper Limb
      4. 8.3 The Pelvic Girdle and Pelvis
      5. 8.4 Bones of the Lower Limb
      6. 8.5 Development of the Appendicular Skeleton
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Review
      9. Interactive Link Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 9 Joints
      1. Introduction
      2. 9.1 Classification of Joints
      3. 9.2 Fibrous Joints
      4. 9.3 Cartilaginous Joints
      5. 9.4 Synovial Joints
      6. 9.5 Types of Body Movements
      7. 9.6 Anatomy of Selected Synovial Joints
      8. 9.7 Development of Joints
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Review
      11. Interactive Link Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 10 Muscle Tissue
      1. Introduction
      2. 10.1 Overview of Muscle Tissues
      3. 10.2 Skeletal Muscle
      4. 10.3 Muscle Fiber Contraction and Relaxation
      5. 10.4 Nervous System Control of Muscle Tension
      6. 10.5 Types of Muscle Fibers
      7. 10.6 Exercise and Muscle Performance
      8. 10.7 Cardiac Muscle Tissue
      9. 10.8 Smooth Muscle
      10. 10.9 Development and Regeneration of Muscle Tissue
      11. Key Terms
      12. Chapter Review
      13. Interactive Link Questions
      14. Review Questions
      15. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 11 The Muscular System
      1. Introduction
      2. 11.1 Interactions of Skeletal Muscles, Their Fascicle Arrangement, and Their Lever Systems
      3. 11.2 Naming Skeletal Muscles
      4. 11.3 Axial Muscles of the Head, Neck, and Back
      5. 11.4 Axial Muscles of the Abdominal Wall, and Thorax
      6. 11.5 Muscles of the Pectoral Girdle and Upper Limbs
      7. 11.6 Appendicular Muscles of the Pelvic Girdle and Lower Limbs
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Review
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  4. Unit 3: Regulation, Integration, and Control
    1. 12 The Nervous System and Nervous Tissue
      1. Introduction
      2. 12.1 Basic Structure and Function of the Nervous System
      3. 12.2 Nervous Tissue
      4. 12.3 The Function of Nervous Tissue
      5. 12.4 The Action Potential
      6. 12.5 Communication Between Neurons
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Review
      9. Interactive Link Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 13 Anatomy of the Nervous System
      1. Introduction
      2. 13.1 The Embryologic Perspective
      3. 13.2 The Central Nervous System
      4. 13.3 Circulation and the Central Nervous System
      5. 13.4 The Peripheral Nervous System
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Review
      8. Interactive Link Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 14 The Somatic Nervous System
      1. Introduction
      2. 14.1 Sensory Perception
      3. 14.2 Central Processing
      4. 14.3 Motor Responses
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Review
      7. Interactive Link Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 15 The Autonomic Nervous System
      1. Introduction
      2. 15.1 Divisions of the Autonomic Nervous System
      3. 15.2 Autonomic Reflexes and Homeostasis
      4. 15.3 Central Control
      5. 15.4 Drugs that Affect the Autonomic System
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Review
      8. Interactive Link Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 16 The Neurological Exam
      1. Introduction
      2. 16.1 Overview of the Neurological Exam
      3. 16.2 The Mental Status Exam
      4. 16.3 The Cranial Nerve Exam
      5. 16.4 The Sensory and Motor Exams
      6. 16.5 The Coordination and Gait Exams
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Review
      9. Interactive Link Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 17 The Endocrine System
      1. Introduction
      2. 17.1 An Overview of the Endocrine System
      3. 17.2 Hormones
      4. 17.3 The Pituitary Gland and Hypothalamus
      5. 17.4 The Thyroid Gland
      6. 17.5 The Parathyroid Glands
      7. 17.6 The Adrenal Glands
      8. 17.7 The Pineal Gland
      9. 17.8 Gonadal and Placental Hormones
      10. 17.9 The Endocrine Pancreas
      11. 17.10 Organs with Secondary Endocrine Functions
      12. 17.11 Development and Aging of the Endocrine System
      13. Key Terms
      14. Chapter Review
      15. Interactive Link Questions
      16. Review Questions
      17. Critical Thinking Questions
  5. Unit 4: Fluids and Transport
    1. 18 The Cardiovascular System: Blood
      1. Introduction
      2. 18.1 An Overview of Blood
      3. 18.2 Production of the Formed Elements
      4. 18.3 Erythrocytes
      5. 18.4 Leukocytes and Platelets
      6. 18.5 Hemostasis
      7. 18.6 Blood Typing
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Review
      10. Interactive Link Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 19 The Cardiovascular System: The Heart
      1. Introduction
      2. 19.1 Heart Anatomy
      3. 19.2 Cardiac Muscle and Electrical Activity
      4. 19.3 Cardiac Cycle
      5. 19.4 Cardiac Physiology
      6. 19.5 Development of the Heart
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Review
      9. Interactive Link Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 20 The Cardiovascular System: Blood Vessels and Circulation
      1. Introduction
      2. 20.1 Structure and Function of Blood Vessels
      3. 20.2 Blood Flow, Blood Pressure, and Resistance
      4. 20.3 Capillary Exchange
      5. 20.4 Homeostatic Regulation of the Vascular System
      6. 20.5 Circulatory Pathways
      7. 20.6 Development of Blood Vessels and Fetal Circulation
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Review
      10. Interactive Link Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 21 The Lymphatic and Immune System
      1. Introduction
      2. 21.1 Anatomy of the Lymphatic and Immune Systems
      3. 21.2 Barrier Defenses and the Innate Immune Response
      4. 21.3 The Adaptive Immune Response: T lymphocytes and Their Functional Types
      5. 21.4 The Adaptive Immune Response: B-lymphocytes and Antibodies
      6. 21.5 The Immune Response against Pathogens
      7. 21.6 Diseases Associated with Depressed or Overactive Immune Responses
      8. 21.7 Transplantation and Cancer Immunology
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Review
      11. Interactive Link Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
  6. Unit 5: Energy, Maintenance, and Environmental Exchange
    1. 22 The Respiratory System
      1. Introduction
      2. 22.1 Organs and Structures of the Respiratory System
      3. 22.2 The Lungs
      4. 22.3 The Process of Breathing
      5. 22.4 Gas Exchange
      6. 22.5 Transport of Gases
      7. 22.6 Modifications in Respiratory Functions
      8. 22.7 Embryonic Development of the Respiratory System
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Review
      11. Interactive Link Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 23 The Digestive System
      1. Introduction
      2. 23.1 Overview of the Digestive System
      3. 23.2 Digestive System Processes and Regulation
      4. 23.3 The Mouth, Pharynx, and Esophagus
      5. 23.4 The Stomach
      6. 23.5 The Small and Large Intestines
      7. 23.6 Accessory Organs in Digestion: The Liver, Pancreas, and Gallbladder
      8. 23.7 Chemical Digestion and Absorption: A Closer Look
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Review
      11. Interactive Link Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 24 Metabolism and Nutrition
      1. Introduction
      2. 24.1 Overview of Metabolic Reactions
      3. 24.2 Carbohydrate Metabolism
      4. 24.3 Lipid Metabolism
      5. 24.4 Protein Metabolism
      6. 24.5 Metabolic States of the Body
      7. 24.6 Energy and Heat Balance
      8. 24.7 Nutrition and Diet
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Review
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 25 The Urinary System
      1. Introduction
      2. 25.1 Physical Characteristics of Urine
      3. 25.2 Gross Anatomy of Urine Transport
      4. 25.3 Gross Anatomy of the Kidney
      5. 25.4 Microscopic Anatomy of the Kidney
      6. 25.5 Physiology of Urine Formation
      7. 25.6 Tubular Reabsorption
      8. 25.7 Regulation of Renal Blood Flow
      9. 25.8 Endocrine Regulation of Kidney Function
      10. 25.9 Regulation of Fluid Volume and Composition
      11. 25.10 The Urinary System and Homeostasis
      12. Key Terms
      13. Chapter Review
      14. Review Questions
      15. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 26 Fluid, Electrolyte, and Acid-Base Balance
      1. Introduction
      2. 26.1 Body Fluids and Fluid Compartments
      3. 26.2 Water Balance
      4. 26.3 Electrolyte Balance
      5. 26.4 Acid-Base Balance
      6. 26.5 Disorders of Acid-Base Balance
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Review
      9. Interactive Link Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  7. Unit 6: Human Development and the Continuity of Life
    1. 27 The Reproductive System
      1. Introduction
      2. 27.1 Anatomy and Physiology of the Male Reproductive System
      3. 27.2 Anatomy and Physiology of the Female Reproductive System
      4. 27.3 Development of the Male and Female Reproductive Systems
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Review
      7. Interactive Link Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 28 Development and Inheritance
      1. Introduction
      2. 28.1 Fertilization
      3. 28.2 Embryonic Development
      4. 28.3 Fetal Development
      5. 28.4 Maternal Changes During Pregnancy, Labor, and Birth
      6. 28.5 Adjustments of the Infant at Birth and Postnatal Stages
      7. 28.6 Lactation
      8. 28.7 Patterns of Inheritance
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Review
      11. Interactive Link Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
  8. References
  9. Index
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the anatomy of erythrocytes
  • Discuss the various steps in the lifecycle of an erythrocyte
  • Explain the composition and function of hemoglobin

The erythrocyte, commonly known as a red blood cell (or RBC), is by far the most common formed element: A single drop of blood contains millions of erythrocytes and just thousands of leukocytes. Specifically, males have about 5.4 million erythrocytes per microliter (µL) of blood, and females have approximately 4.8 million per µL. In fact, erythrocytes are estimated to make up about 25 percent of the total cells in the body. As you can imagine, they are quite small cells, with a mean diameter of only about 7–8 micrometers (µm) (Figure 18.5). The primary functions of erythrocytes are to pick up inhaled oxygen from the lungs and transport it to the body’s tissues, and to pick up some (about 24 percent) carbon dioxide waste at the tissues and transport it to the lungs for exhalation. Erythrocytes remain within the vascular network. Although leukocytes typically leave the blood vessels to perform their defensive functions, movement of erythrocytes from the blood vessels is abnormal.

This table shows the different types of cells present in blood, the number of cells, their appearance, and a summary of their function.
Figure 18.5 Summary of Formed Elements in Blood

Shape and Structure of Erythrocytes

As an erythrocyte matures in the red bone marrow, it extrudes its nucleus and most of its other organelles. During the first day or two that it is in the circulation, an immature erythrocyte, known as a reticulocyte, will still typically contain remnants of organelles. Reticulocytes should comprise approximately 1–2 percent of the erythrocyte count and provide a rough estimate of the rate of RBC production, with abnormally low or high rates indicating deviations in the production of these cells. These remnants, primarily of networks (reticulum) of ribosomes, are quickly shed, however, and mature, circulating erythrocytes have few internal cellular structural components. Lacking mitochondria, for example, they rely on anaerobic respiration. This means that they do not utilize any of the oxygen they are transporting, so they can deliver it all to the tissues. They also lack endoplasmic reticula and do not synthesize proteins. Erythrocytes do, however, contain some structural proteins that help the blood cells maintain their unique structure and enable them to change their shape to squeeze through capillaries. This includes the protein spectrin, a cytoskeletal protein element.

Erythrocytes are biconcave disks; that is, they are plump at their periphery and very thin in the center (Figure 18.6). Since they lack most organelles, there is more interior space for the presence of the hemoglobin molecules that, as you will see shortly, transport gases. The biconcave shape also provides a greater surface area across which gas exchange can occur, relative to its volume; a sphere of a similar diameter would have a lower surface area-to-volume ratio. In the capillaries, the oxygen carried by the erythrocytes can diffuse into the plasma and then through the capillary walls to reach the cells, whereas some of the carbon dioxide produced by the cells as a waste product diffuses into the capillaries to be picked up by the erythrocytes. Capillary beds are extremely narrow, slowing the passage of the erythrocytes and providing an extended opportunity for gas exchange to occur. However, the space within capillaries can be so minute that, despite their own small size, erythrocytes may have to fold in on themselves if they are to make their way through. Fortunately, their structural proteins like spectrin are flexible, allowing them to bend over themselves to a surprising degree, then spring back again when they enter a wider vessel. In wider vessels, erythrocytes may stack up much like a roll of coins, forming a rouleaux, from the French word for “roll.”

This photograph shows a few red blood cells.
Figure 18.6 Shape of Red Blood Cells Erythrocytes are biconcave discs with very shallow centers. This shape optimizes the ratio of surface area to volume, facilitating gas exchange. It also enables them to fold up as they move through narrow blood vessels.

Hemoglobin

Hemoglobin is a large molecule made up of proteins and iron. It consists of four folded chains of a protein called globin, designated alpha 1 and 2, and beta 1 and 2 (Figure 18.7a). Each of these globin molecules is bound to a red pigment molecule called heme, which contains an ion of iron (Fe2+) (Figure 18.7b).

This figure shows the structure of hemoglobin. The left panel shows the protein structure and the right panel shows the chemical formula.
Figure 18.7 Hemoglobin (a) A molecule of hemoglobin contains four globin proteins, each of which is bound to one molecule of the iron-containing pigment heme. (b) A single erythrocyte can contain 300 million hemoglobin molecules, and thus more than 1 billion oxygen molecules.

Each iron ion in the heme can bind to one oxygen molecule; therefore, each hemoglobin molecule can transport four oxygen molecules. An individual erythrocyte may contain about 300 million hemoglobin molecules, and therefore can bind to and transport up to 1.2 billion oxygen molecules (see Figure 18.7b).

In the lungs, hemoglobin picks up oxygen, which binds to the iron ions, forming oxyhemoglobin. The bright red, oxygenated hemoglobin travels to the body tissues, where it releases some of the oxygen molecules, becoming darker red deoxyhemoglobin, sometimes referred to as reduced hemoglobin. Oxygen release depends on the need for oxygen in the surrounding tissues, so hemoglobin rarely if ever leaves all of its oxygen behind. In the capillaries, carbon dioxide enters the bloodstream. About 76 percent dissolves in the plasma, some of it remaining as dissolved CO2, and the remainder forming bicarbonate ion. About 23–24 percent of it binds to the amino acids in hemoglobin, forming a molecule known as carbaminohemoglobin. From the capillaries, the hemoglobin carries carbon dioxide back to the lungs, where it releases it for exchange of oxygen.

Changes in the levels of RBCs can have significant effects on the body’s ability to effectively deliver oxygen to the tissues. Ineffective hematopoiesis results in insufficient numbers of RBCs and results in one of several forms of anemia. An overproduction of RBCs produces a condition called polycythemia. The primary drawback with polycythemia is not a failure to directly deliver enough oxygen to the tissues, but rather the increased viscosity of the blood, which makes it more difficult for the heart to circulate the blood.

In patients with insufficient hemoglobin, the tissues may not receive sufficient oxygen, resulting in another form of anemia. In determining oxygenation of tissues, the value of greatest interest in healthcare is the percent saturation; that is, the percentage of hemoglobin sites occupied by oxygen in a patient’s blood. Clinically this value is commonly referred to simply as “percent sat.”

Percent saturation is normally monitored using a device known as a pulse oximeter, which is applied to a thin part of the body, typically the tip of the patient’s finger. The device works by sending two different wavelengths of light (one red, the other infrared) through the finger and measuring the light with a photodetector as it exits. Hemoglobin absorbs light differentially depending upon its saturation with oxygen. The machine calibrates the amount of light received by the photodetector against the amount absorbed by the partially oxygenated hemoglobin and presents the data as percent saturation. Normal pulse oximeter readings range from 95–100 percent. Lower percentages reflect hypoxemia, or low blood oxygen. The term hypoxia is more generic and simply refers to low oxygen levels. Oxygen levels are also directly monitored from free oxygen in the plasma typically following an arterial stick. When this method is applied, the amount of oxygen present is expressed in terms of partial pressure of oxygen or simply pO2 and is typically recorded in units of millimeters of mercury, mm Hg.

The kidneys filter about 180 liters (~380 pints) of blood in an average adult each day, or about 20 percent of the total resting volume, and thus serve as ideal sites for receptors that determine oxygen saturation. In response to hypoxemia, less oxygen will exit the vessels supplying the kidney, resulting in hypoxia (low oxygen concentration) in the tissue fluid of the kidney where oxygen concentration is actually monitored. Interstitial fibroblasts within the kidney secrete EPO, thereby increasing erythrocyte production and restoring oxygen levels. In a classic negative-feedback loop, as oxygen saturation rises, EPO secretion falls, and vice versa, thereby maintaining homeostasis. Populations dwelling at high elevations, with inherently lower levels of oxygen in the atmosphere, naturally maintain a hematocrit higher than people living at sea level. Consequently, people traveling to high elevations may experience symptoms of hypoxemia, such as fatigue, headache, and shortness of breath, for a few days after their arrival. In response to the hypoxemia, the kidneys secrete EPO to step up the production of erythrocytes until homeostasis is achieved once again. To avoid the symptoms of hypoxemia, or altitude sickness, mountain climbers typically rest for several days to a week or more at a series of camps situated at increasing elevations to allow EPO levels and, consequently, erythrocyte counts to rise. When climbing the tallest peaks, such as Mt. Everest and K2 in the Himalayas, many mountain climbers rely upon bottled oxygen as they near the summit.

Lifecycle of Erythrocytes

Production of erythrocytes in the marrow occurs at the staggering rate of more than 2 million cells per second. For this production to occur, a number of raw materials must be present in adequate amounts. These include the same nutrients that are essential to the production and maintenance of any cell, such as glucose, lipids, and amino acids. However, erythrocyte production also requires several trace elements:

  • Iron. We have said that each heme group in a hemoglobin molecule contains an ion of the trace mineral iron. On average, less than 20 percent of the iron we consume is absorbed. Heme iron, from animal foods such as meat, poultry, and fish, is absorbed more efficiently than non-heme iron from plant foods. Upon absorption, iron becomes part of the body’s total iron pool. The bone marrow, liver, and spleen can store iron in the protein compounds ferritin and hemosiderin. Ferroportin transports the iron across the intestinal cell plasma membranes and from its storage sites into tissue fluid where it enters the blood. When EPO stimulates the production of erythrocytes, iron is released from storage, bound to transferrin, and carried to the red marrow where it attaches to erythrocyte precursors.
  • Copper. A trace mineral, copper is a component of two plasma proteins, hephaestin and ceruloplasmin. Without these, hemoglobin could not be adequately produced. Located in intestinal villi, hephaestin enables iron to be absorbed by intestinal cells. Ceruloplasmin transports copper. Both enable the oxidation of iron from Fe2+ to Fe3+, a form in which it can be bound to its transport protein, transferrin, for transport to body cells. In a state of copper deficiency, the transport of iron for heme synthesis decreases, and iron can accumulate in tissues, where it can eventually lead to organ damage.
  • Zinc. The trace mineral zinc functions as a co-enzyme that facilitates the synthesis of the heme portion of hemoglobin.
  • B vitamins. The B vitamins folate and vitamin B12 function as co-enzymes that facilitate DNA synthesis. Thus, both are critical for the synthesis of new cells, including erythrocytes.

Erythrocytes live up to 120 days in the circulation, after which the worn-out cells are removed by a type of myeloid phagocytic cell called a macrophage, located primarily within the bone marrow, liver, and spleen. The components of the degraded erythrocytes’ hemoglobin are further processed as follows:

  • Globin, the protein portion of hemoglobin, is broken down into amino acids, which can be sent back to the bone marrow to be used in the production of new erythrocytes. Hemoglobin that is not phagocytized is broken down in the circulation, releasing alpha and beta chains that are removed from circulation by the kidneys.
  • The iron contained in the heme portion of hemoglobin may be stored in the liver or spleen, primarily in the form of ferritin or hemosiderin, or carried through the bloodstream by transferrin to the red bone marrow for recycling into new erythrocytes.
  • The non-iron portion of heme is degraded into the waste product biliverdin, a green pigment, and then into another waste product, bilirubin, a yellow pigment. Bilirubin binds to albumin and travels in the blood to the liver, which uses it in the manufacture of bile, a compound released into the intestines to help emulsify dietary fats. In the large intestine, bacteria breaks the bilirubin apart from the bile and converts it to urobilinogen and then into stercobilin. It is then eliminated from the body in the feces. Broad-spectrum antibiotics typically eliminate these bacteria as well and may alter the color of feces. The kidneys also remove any circulating bilirubin and other related metabolic byproducts such as urobilins and secrete them into the urine.

The breakdown pigments formed from the destruction of hemoglobin can be seen in a variety of situations. At the site of an injury, biliverdin from damaged RBCs produces some of the dramatic colors associated with bruising. With a failing liver, bilirubin cannot be removed effectively from circulation and causes the body to assume a yellowish tinge associated with jaundice. Stercobilins within the feces produce the typical brown color associated with this waste. And the yellow of urine is associated with the urobilins.

The erythrocyte lifecycle is summarized in Figure 18.8.

This flow chart shows the life cycle of a red blood cell. The first step is the hemopoeisis of erythrocytes in the bone marrow. Further steps in this diagram show the passage of erythrocytes through the blood stream, the breakdown of heme protein, and liver function.
Figure 18.8 Erythrocyte Lifecycle Erythrocytes are produced in the bone marrow and sent into the circulation. At the end of their lifecycle, they are destroyed by macrophages, and their components are recycled.

Disorders of Erythrocytes

The size, shape, and number of erythrocytes, and the number of hemoglobin molecules can have a major impact on a person’s health. When the number of RBCs or hemoglobin is deficient, the general condition is called anemia. There are more than 400 types of anemia and more than 3.5 million Americans suffer from this condition. Anemia can be broken down into three major groups: those caused by blood loss, those caused by faulty or decreased RBC production, and those caused by excessive destruction of RBCs. Clinicians often use two groupings in diagnosis: The kinetic approach focuses on evaluating the production, destruction, and removal of RBCs, whereas the morphological approach examines the RBCs themselves, paying particular emphasis to their size. A common test is the mean corpuscle volume (MCV), which measures size. Normal-sized cells are referred to as normocytic, smaller-than-normal cells are referred to as microcytic, and larger-than-normal cells are referred to as macrocytic. Reticulocyte counts are also important and may reveal inadequate production of RBCs. The effects of the various anemias are widespread, because reduced numbers of RBCs or hemoglobin will result in lower levels of oxygen being delivered to body tissues. Since oxygen is required for tissue functioning, anemia produces fatigue, lethargy, and an increased risk for infection. An oxygen deficit in the brain impairs the ability to think clearly, and may prompt headaches and irritability. Lack of oxygen leaves the patient short of breath, even as the heart and lungs work harder in response to the deficit.

Blood loss anemias are fairly straightforward. In addition to bleeding from wounds or other lesions, these forms of anemia may be due to ulcers, hemorrhoids, inflammation of the stomach (gastritis), and some cancers of the gastrointestinal tract. The excessive use of aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen can trigger ulceration and gastritis. Excessive menstruation and loss of blood during childbirth are also potential causes.

Anemias caused by faulty or decreased RBC production include sickle cell anemia, iron deficiency anemia, vitamin deficiency anemia, and diseases of the bone marrow and stem cells.

  • A characteristic change in the shape of erythrocytes is seen in sickle cell disease (also referred to as sickle cell anemia). A genetic disorder, it is caused by production of an abnormal type of hemoglobin, called hemoglobin S, which delivers less oxygen to tissues and causes erythrocytes to assume a sickle (or crescent) shape, especially at low oxygen concentrations (Figure 18.9). These abnormally shaped cells can then become lodged in narrow capillaries because they are unable to fold in on themselves to squeeze through, blocking blood flow to tissues and causing a variety of serious problems from painful joints to delayed growth and even blindness and cerebrovascular accidents (strokes). Sickle cell anemia is a genetic condition particularly found in individuals of African descent.
This photograph shows red blood cells of a person suffering from sickle cell anemia. Instead of being discoid shaped like healthy blood cells, sickle red blood cells are shaped like a sickle.
Figure 18.9 Sickle Cells Sickle cell anemia is caused by a mutation in one of the hemoglobin genes. Erythrocytes produce an abnormal type of hemoglobin, which causes the cell to take on a sickle or crescent shape. (credit: Janice Haney Carr)
  • Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type and results when the amount of available iron is insufficient to allow production of sufficient heme. This condition can occur in individuals with a deficiency of iron in the diet and is especially common in teens and children as well as in vegans and vegetarians. Additionally, iron deficiency anemia may be caused by either an inability to absorb and transport iron or slow, chronic bleeding.
  • Vitamin-deficient anemias generally involve insufficient vitamin B12 and folate.
    • Megaloblastic anemia involves a deficiency of vitamin B12 and/or folate, and often involves diets deficient in these essential nutrients. Lack of meat or a viable alternate source, and overcooking or eating insufficient amounts of vegetables may lead to a lack of folate.
    • Pernicious anemia is caused by poor absorption of vitamin B12 and is often seen in patients with Crohn’s disease (a severe intestinal disorder often treated by surgery), surgical removal of the intestines or stomach (common in some weight loss surgeries), intestinal parasites, and AIDS.
    • Pregnancies, some medications, excessive alcohol consumption, and some diseases such as celiac disease are also associated with vitamin deficiencies. It is essential to provide sufficient folic acid during the early stages of pregnancy to reduce the risk of neurological defects, including spina bifida, a failure of the neural tube to close.
  • Assorted disease processes can also interfere with the production and formation of RBCs and hemoglobin. If myeloid stem cells are defective or replaced by cancer cells, there will be insufficient quantities of RBCs produced.
    • Aplastic anemia is the condition in which there are deficient numbers of RBC stem cells. Aplastic anemia is often inherited, or it may be triggered by radiation, medication, chemotherapy, or infection.
    • Thalassemia is an inherited condition typically occurring in individuals from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, African, and Southeast Asia, in which maturation of the RBCs does not proceed normally. The most severe form is called Cooley’s anemia.
    • Lead exposure from industrial sources or even dust from paint chips of iron-containing paints or pottery that has not been properly glazed may also lead to destruction of the red marrow.
  • Various disease processes also can lead to anemias. These include chronic kidney diseases often associated with a decreased production of EPO, hypothyroidism, some forms of cancer, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

In contrast to anemia, an elevated RBC count is called polycythemia and is detected in a patient’s elevated hematocrit. It can occur transiently in a person who is dehydrated; when water intake is inadequate or water losses are excessive, the plasma volume falls. As a result, the hematocrit rises. For reasons mentioned earlier, a mild form of polycythemia is chronic but normal in people living at high altitudes. Some elite athletes train at high elevations specifically to induce this phenomenon. Finally, a type of bone marrow disease called polycythemia vera (from the Greek vera = “true”) causes an excessive production of immature erythrocytes. Polycythemia vera can dangerously elevate the viscosity of blood, raising blood pressure and making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood throughout the body. It is a relatively rare disease that occurs more often in men than women, and is more likely to be present in elderly patients those over 60 years of age.

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