Ciliated Epithelium Structure and Function

Christina Keathley, Laura Enzor
  • Author
    Christina Keathley

    Christina graduated with a Master's in biology from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She is a current PhD student in biology at Wake Forest University, and has been teaching undergraduate students biology for the last three years.

  • Instructor
    Laura Enzor

    Laura has a Master's degree in Biology and is working on her PhD in Biology. She specializes in teaching Human Physiology at USC.

Learn about the ciliated epithelium. Understand what the function of the ciliated epithelium is and where the ciliated epithelium is found. Updated: 02/21/2022

Table of Contents


Ciliated Epithelium

Epithelial tissue is the type of tissue that lines organs, structure, and cavities. It makes up the internal lining of various organs, such as the heart and those composing the digestive system. It also lines the internal body cavities and the external body in the form of skin. Epithelial tissue provides multiple functions for the body depending on where it's found. For instance, the epithelial tissue on the outside of the body serves as a barrier between the internal and external environment. The epithelial tissue within the lungs is specialized to allow gas to easily flow in and out of the respiratory tract.

Some of the epithelial tissue is ciliated. A ciliated epithelial cell has hair-like projections that reach out into the internal space of the structure they line. These projections (called cilia) provide important functions throughout the body. In this lesson, investigate ciliated epithelium in more detail to answer the following questions:

  • What do ciliated epithelial cells look like?
  • Where is ciliated epithelium found within the body?
  • What is the function of ciliated epithelium?

Ciliated Epithelium Structure

Epithelial cells come in several defined shapes and sizes. Squamous epithelial cells are flat, often described as "pancake-like." Cuboidal epithelial cells are cube-like in shape. Columnar epithelial cells are taller than they are wide, making them appear like tall rectangles. Epithelial tissue is also categorized by its orientation. Simple epithelial tissue has a single row of cells, while stratified is composed of multiple cells. Pseudostratified epithelial cells appear like multiple rows, but are composed of alternating cells that are wider on one end and narrower on the other.

Ciliated epithelial cells are simple columnar epithelial cells. These cells possess cilia, which extend into the internal cavity of the structure they line. Each cell contains between 200 and 300 of these small projections. The nucleus of these cells is found more towards the basement membrane, which is the layer of tissue that the cells are adhered to. Ciliated epithelial cells join to one another via tight junctions and adhesive proteins (called desmosomes). Goblet cells are also found within a collection of ciliated epithelial cells. Goblet cells get their name from their cup-shaped structure when examined from their cross section.

Ciliated epithelial cells have hair-like projections.

A scanning electron microscope image of ciliated epithelium.

Where Is the Ciliated Epithelium Found?

Ciliated epithelium is found within the respiratory system and the reproductive system of females. Specifically, ciliated epithelial tissue is found lining the trachea. It also lines some of the upper structures of the respiratory tract, such as the bronchial tubes. Within the female reproductive system, ciliated epithelium is found within the fallopian tubes.

The digestive tract also contains simple columnar epithelial cells and mucus secreting goblet cells. These cells also have hair-like projections. At first glance, the epithelial tissue here, and within the respiratory tract, may appear very similar. However, the hair-like projections on the digestive epithelium are called microvilli, and they are specialized for absorption, not the movement of particulates.

What Is the Function of the Ciliated Epithelium?

The shape and location of ciliated epithelium gives hints about its function. Consider the respiratory system. This system works to take in fresh air and exchange it with spent air. Oxygen is taken into the body and waste carbon dioxide is expelled. The air composing the external environment is not composed of pure oxygen; there are also a number of microbes and particulates that are taken in during inhalation. Build up of these irritants can decrease the efficacy of the respiratory system, damage respiratory tissue, and introduce pathogens. Ciliated epithelium exists within the respiratory tract to prevent this.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is ciliated epithelium tissue?

Ciliated epithelial tissue is simple columnar epithelial tissue with hair like projections. These projections (called cilia) work to move fluid and microscopic objects.

Where is ciliated epithelium found?

Ciliated epithelial tissue is found in two locations within the body. In the respiratory system, it lines the trachea and respiratory bronchioles. In the female reproductive tract, it composes the lining of the fallopian tubes.

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