Pulmonary surfactant


                 Pulmonary surfactant 


Pulmonary surfactant is a surface-active lipoprotein complex (phospholipoprotein) formed by type II alveolar cells. The proteins and lipids that make up the surfactant have both hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions. By adsorbing to the air-water interface of alveoli, with hydrophilic head groups in the water and the hydrophobic tails facing towards the air, the main lipid component of surfactant, dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine (DPPC), reduces surface tension.

As a medication, pulmonary surfactant is on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines, the most important medications needed in a basic health system.

  • To increase pulmonary compliance.
  • To prevent atelectasis (collapse of the lung) at the end of expiration.
  • To facilitate recruitment of collapsed airways.

Alveoli can be compared to gas in water, as the alveoli are wet and surround a central air space. The surface tension acts at the air-water interface and tends to make the bubble smaller (by decreasing the surface area of the interface). The gas pressure (P) needed to keep an equilibrium between the collapsing force of surface tension (γ) and the expanding force of gas in an alveolus of radius r is expressed by the law of Laplace:

{\displaystyle P={\frac {2\gamma }{r}}}


Compliance is the ability of the lungs and thorax to expand. Lung compliance is defined as the volume change per unit of pressure change across the lung. Measurements of lung volume obtained during the controlled inflation/deflation of a normal lung show that the volumes obtained during deflation exceed those during inflation, at a given pressure. This difference in inflation and deflation volumes at a given pressure is called hysteresis and is due to the air-water surface tension that occurs at the beginning of inflation. However, surfactant decreases the alveolar surface tension, as seen in cases of premature infants suffering from infant respiratory distress syndrome. The normal surface tension for water is 70 dyn/cm (70 mN/m) and in the lungs, it is 25 dyn/cm (25 mN/m); however, at the end of the expiration, compressed surfactant phospholipid molecules decrease the surface tension to very low, near-zero levels. Pulmonary surfactant thus greatly reduces surface tension, increasing compliance allowing the lung to inflate much more easily, thereby reducing the work of breathing. It reduces the pressure difference needed to allow the lung to inflate. The lung's compliance decreases and ventilation decrease when lung tissue becomes diseased and fibrotic.

Alveolar size regulation:

As the alveoli increase in size, the surfactant becomes more spread out over the surface of the liquid. This increases surface tension effectively slowing the rate of expansion of the alveoli. This also helps all alveoli in the lungs expand at the same rate, as one that expands more quickly will experience a large rise in surface tension slowing its rate of expansion. It also means the rate of shrinking is more regular as if one reduces in size more quickly the surface tension will reduce more, so other alveoli can contract more easily than it can. Surfactant reduces surface tension more readily when the alveoli are smaller because the surfactant is more concentrated.

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With Regards

Rose Jackson

Auditorial Assistant

Journal of lung