The heart

The heart

The heart is a muscular organ as big as our fists. Because oxygen and carbon dioxide have to be transported by the blood, the heart has different chambers to prevent the oxygen-rich blood from mixing with the blood containing carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide-rich blood has to reach the lungs for the carbon dioxide to be removed, and the oxygenated blood from the lungs has to be brought back to the heart. This oxygen-rich blood is then pumped to the rest of the body.

Figure – The Heart

We can follow this process step by step. Oxygen-rich blood from the lungs comes to the thin-walled upper chamber of the heart on the left, the left atrium. The left atrium relaxes when it is collecting this blood. It then contracts, while the next chamber, the left ventricle, relaxes so that the blood is transferred to it. When the muscular left ventricle contracts in its turn, the blood is pumped out to the body. De-oxygenated blood comes from the body to the upper chamber on the right, the right atrium, as it relaxes. As the right atrium contracts, the corresponding lower chamber, the right ventricle, dilates.
This transfers blood to the right ventricle, which in turn pumps it to the lungs for oxygenation. Since ventricles have to pump blood into various organs, they have thicker muscular walls than the atria do. Valves ensure that blood does not flow backwards when the atria or ventricles contract.

Oxygen enters the blood in the lungs

Schematic representation of transport and exchange
of oxygen and carbon dioxide

The separation of the right side and the left side of the heart is useful to keep oxygenated and deoxygenated blood from mixing. Such separation allows a highly efficient supply of oxygen to the body. This is useful in animals that have high
energy needs, such as birds and mammals, which constantly use energy to maintain their body temperature. In animals that do not use energy for this purpose, the body temperature depends on the temperature in the environment. Such animals, like amphibians or many reptiles have three chambered hearts, and tolerate some mixing of the oxygenated and de-oxygenated blood streams. Fishes, on the other hand, have only two chambers to their hearts, and the blood is pumped to the gills, is oxygenated there, and passes directly to the rest of the body. Thus, blood goes only once
through the heart in the fish during one cycle of passage through the body. On the other hand, it goes through the heart twice during each cycle in other vertebrates. This is known as double circulation.

The tubes – blood vessels

Arteries are the vessels which carry blood away from the heart to various organs of the body. Since the blood emerges from the heart under high pressure, the arteries have thick, elastic walls. Veins collect the blood from different organs and bring it back to the heart. They do not need thick walls because the blood is no longer under pressure, instead they have valves that ensure that the blood flows only in one direction.

On reaching an organ or tissue, the artery divides into smaller and smaller vessels to bring the blood in contact with all the individual cells. The smallest vessels have walls which are one-cell thick and are called capillaries. Exchange of material between the blood and surrounding cells takes place across this thin wall. The capillaries then join together to form veins that convey the blood away from the organ or tissue.

Maintenance by platelets

What happens if this system of tubes develops a leak? Think about situations when we are injured and start bleeding. Naturally, the loss of
blood from the system has to be minimised. In addition, leakage would lead to a loss of pressure which would reduce the efficiency of the pumping system. To avoid this, the blood has platelet cells which circulate around the body and plug these leaks by helping to clot the blood at these points of injury.


There is another type of fluid also involved in transportation. This is called lymph or tissue fluid. Through the pores present in the walls of
capillaries some amount of plasma, proteins and blood cells escape into intercellular spaces in the tissues to form the tissue fluid or lymph. It is similar to the plasma of blood but colourless and contains less protein.
Lymph drains into lymphatic capillaries from the intercellular spaces, which join to form large lymph vessels that finally open into larger veins.
Lymph carries digested and absorbed fat from the intestine and drains excess fluid from extracellular space back into the blood.

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