Gas Transport: Oxygen and Hemoglobin

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: John Simmons

John has taught college science courses face-to-face and online since 1994 and has a doctorate in physiology.

Hemoglobin, found in red blood cells, plays a key role in transporting oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Explore how the oxygen transportation process occurs, and review how hemoglobin is loaded in the lungs and unloaded in metabolizing tissue. Updated: 08/23/2021

Oxygen Transport

Most people are aware of the fact that we breathe to get oxygen into our body. What may not be so clear, however, is how oxygen is transported to the various cells of our body - that is, after we breathe it in. Our cells need oxygen to make the energy-containing molecule that we call ATP. There's no time like the present, so let's take a look at how oxygen is transported in our bodies.

First off, blood is the avenue by which oxygen is transported through the body. You see, blood flows through our lungs much like a stream flows through a summer camp. Just like kids jumping into the stream, oxygen diffuses into the blood as it flows through our lungs. Enough oxygen diffuses into our blood to load every 100 ml of blood with about 20 ml of oxygen. That's a lot of oxygen, and we call this oxygen-rich blood. We need oxygen to meet our metabolic needs, and oxygen transport refers to the different ways by which oxygen is delivered to our metabolizing tissues.

Oxygen diffuses into blood when flowing through the lungs.
Oxygen Diffuses into Blood

Okay, we've established that our blood carries oxygen, but we need to examine how the oxygen is transported in the blood. By far, most of the body's oxygen is delivered in the blood bound to hemoglobin. Relatively little oxygen is delivered dissolved in the plasma. Let me quickly note that very little oxygen is dissolved, because its solubility in water is low. In this lesson, we're going to discuss the significance of both hemoglobin and dissolved oxygen in terms of oxygen transport.

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Coming up next: Gas Transport: Cooperative Binding of Oxygen with Hemoglobin

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  • 0:05 Oxygen Transport
  • 1:56 Hemoglobin
  • 3:22 Loading of Hemoglobin in Lungs
  • 4:40 Unloading of…
  • 5:16 Equation for Loading/Unloading
  • 6:37 Lesson Summary
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As I just stated, oxygen-rich blood contains 20 ml of oxygen in every 100 ml of total blood volume. Of that 20 ml, only 0.3 ml is dissolved in the plasma. That's not very much at all, and it begs the question, where's the rest of the oxygen? Well, the remaining 19.7 ml of oxygen is still in the blood, but it's bound to hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a complex protein that is contained within our red blood cells. Approximately one-half of our blood volume is composed of red blood cells, and we've got between 12 and 18 grams of hemoglobin in every 100 ml of blood.

It's helpful to think of a red blood cell as being a bag of hemoglobin. Each hemoglobin molecule is made of four subunits, each containing a heme group that can bind one molecule of oxygen. Therefore, one molecule of hemoglobin can bind four molecules of oxygen. Oxyhemoglobin is hemoglobin bound to oxygen, and it gives oxygen-rich blood a red color. On the other hand, deoxyhemoglobin is hemoglobin without oxygen bound to it.

One hemoglobin molecule can bind to four oxygen molecules.
One Hemoglobin Four Oxygen

Loading of Hemoglobin in Lungs

The binding of oxygen to hemoglobin as it flows through the lungs is referred to as loading. It's helpful to think of hemoglobin as being like microscopic boats that pick up oxygen in the lungs as if they were a loading dock. The boats of hemoglobin then deliver oxygen to the metabolizing tissues, where the oxygen is used to make ATP.

It's important to note that before oxygen can bind hemoglobin in the red blood cell, it must first dissolve in the plasma. Therefore, while the amount of dissolved oxygen may be low compared to the amount bound to hemoglobin, dissolved oxygen is essential for oxygen transport. You see, the dissolved oxygen diffuses into the plasma first, and then it diffuses into the red blood cells.

So, in a sense, each oxygen molecule makes a voyage. It diffuses across the respiratory membrane, dissolves in the blood, and then enters the red blood cell, where it binds to hemoglobin. Once in the red blood cell, oxygen is removed from the plasma. This effectively leaves an empty space, so to speak, in the plasma, into which another oxygen molecule can dissolve.

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