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Organ system histology
Bronchioles and alveoli histology
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Bronchioles are air-conducting passageways that are typically less than 1 mm in diameter. The smallest bronchioles, called terminal bronchioles, are the most distal airways that are still a part of the conducting portion of the respiratory system. The terminal bronchioles then lead to the first portion of the airways that have a respiratory function, called respiratory bronchioles. These bronchioles then lead to the alveolar ducts, which are transitional airways that gradually become increasingly involved in gas exchange and lead to the alveolar sacs and their individual alveoli.
If we compare images from a bronchus and bronchiole at low magnification, we can see that the larger bronchus has large supporting cartilage plates that aren’t seen in the smaller bronchiole. The bronchi also contain sero-mucous glands that are not present in bronchioles, but the bronchioles will still have a surrounding layer of smooth muscle present. The larger proximal bronchioles, similar to the one in this image, are called the primary bronchioles. If we zoom in to 40x, we can see that the primary bronchioles have ciliated, pseudostratified columnar epithelium with goblet cells. When using a Hematoxylin and Eosin stain, the goblet cells will appear lighter than the surrounding epithelial cells and as their name suggests, these cells are often shaped similarly to the top portion of a goblet. Moving distally through the airways, the bronchioles' diameter gradually decreases and the terminal bronchioles will have a diameter less than 0.5 mm. The epithelium also transitions from ciliated pseudostratified columnar epithelium to an epithelium that consists mostly of ciliated simple columnar and cuboidal cells with exocrine club or Clara cells instead of goblet cells. The Clara cells can be identified by their tall columnar and non-ciliated appearance, as well as their dome-shaped apical ends that contain secretory granules.
The bronchioles are the smallest air passages in the lungs and they end in tiny sacs called alveoli. The wall of each bronchiole has a layer of smooth muscle that can contract to narrow the airway. Distally are the smallest bronchioles called terminal bronchioles, which give rise to the respiratory bronchioles that end up with alveolar ducts. Distal to the alveolar ducts are alveolar sacs and their individual alveoli. The alveoli are where most of the gas exchange takes place between the lungs and the bloodstream. Each alveolus is a microscopic sac lined with a single layer of flattened epithelial cells. There are tiny blood vessels (capillaries) surrounding each alveolus, and it is through these capillaries that oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged. Within the alveoli are clusters of cells called type I and type II pneumocytes. The type I cells make up about 90% of the epithelial layer and their primary function is to keep the alveoli from collapsing. The type II cells are much less numerous and their primary function is to produce surfactant. Surfactant is a substance that reduces the surface tension of the fluid that covers the alveoli. This allows the alveoli to stay inflated and prevents them from collapsing.
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