Alveolar surface tension and surfactant

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Alveolar surface tension and surfactant


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Alveolar surface tension and surfactant

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USMLE® Step 1 style questions USMLE

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A researcher is studying pulmonary physiology. He identifies a substance secreted by type II pneumocytes that is composed primarily of lipoproteins. This substance will likely have which of the following effects on pulmonary physiology?  

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Pulmonary surfactant

club cells p. 685

compliance and p. 689

NRDS p. 685

Surfactant (pulmonary) p. 685, 693

secretion p. 685


The alveoli are the tiny air sacs in the lungs where gas exchange happens. And their walls are lined by a thin film of water, which creates a force at their surface called surface tension.

Surface tension tends to collapse the pulmonary alveoli, and, as you can imagine, this could turn into a big problem - not being able to breathe in.

Luckily, alveolar cells have found a way to counteract surface tension by producing surfactant, which is a phospholipoprotein that reduces the surface tension, keeping the alveoli open so that we can breathe properly.

That being said, take a deep breath, because we’re about to delve into the physics of surface tension.

The water molecules, known as H2O to their friends, stay close together because of hydrogen bonds that form between the negatively charged oxygen ion of one molecule and the positively charged hydrogen ion of another molecule.

Within the bulk of water, the molecules are equally pulled in every direction by neighboring molecules, so the resulting net force is zero.

However, when you add air into the mix, the whole system becomes unbalanced, because at the water-air interface, water molecules are not surrounded by other water molecules.

This creates too many cohesive forces between water molecules at the surface, that pull the water molecules at the surface closer together, making the surface of the water shrink to the minimum surface area possible.

Now, the interior of the alveoli is also spherical, so the net force of surface tension is directed to the center of the alveoli, which tends to collapse the alveolar walls towards the center.

The magnitude of this force is predicted by Laplace law, which states that the pressure collapsing the alveolus is directly proportional to the surface tension generated by molecules of fluid lining the alveolus, and inversely proportional to the radius of the alveoli. So the smaller the alveoli, the larger the collapsing pressure.


Alveolar surface tension is the tension that results from the forces acting on the liquid surfaces of the alveoli. The primary force acting on the liquid surface is due to the cohesive forces between neighboring water molecules.

These forces are called "hydrogen bonds" and they are responsible for water's unique properties, such as its ability to form droplets ( rain, dew, etc.). Surface tension tends to collapse the alveoli, but this is countered by a kind of "coating" that covers the alveolar surface called surfactant. Surfactant reduces the surface tension of water, keeping the alveoli open so that we can breathe easily.


  1. "Medical Physiology" Elsevier (2016)
  2. "Physiology" Elsevier (2017)
  3. "Human Anatomy & Physiology" Pearson (2018)
  4. "Principles of Anatomy and Physiology" Wiley (2014)
  5. "Beyond Navier–Stokes equations: capillarity of ideal gas" Contemporary Physics (2016)
  6. "Host Defense Functions of Pulmonary Surfactant" Neonatology (2004)
  7. "Multiple Courses of Antenatal Corticosteroids for Preterm Birth Study" JAMA Pediatrics (2013)

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