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The Biology

The lungs develop from two small buds which branch many times to make the adult structures. When we breathe, oxygen is taken in to the body and carbon dioxide is expelled. This happens in the lungs.

The lungs have a big surface area provided by millions of small airways. These determine the amount of oxygen the lungs can take up from the air.
  The lungs (green ) develop from two small buds which branch many times to make the adult structures.

Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature, Metzger, Klein, Martin and Krasnow: The branching programme of mouse lung development, Issue 453 pp745-750, copyright 2008

How it works

At the ends of the lungs' branching network cells begin to specialise, forming sac-like structures, called Alveoli. These have thin cell walls and are coated with tiny blood vessels.

Image. Embryonic alveoli © Kate Storey
In the final weeks of pregnancy specialised lung cells secrete a substance called surfactant. This has detergent-like properties which help expand alveoli cells, increasing their surface area and so the exchange of gases.

Find out more:
Over-view of heart and lung function

Over-view of gaseous exchange

Key labs that work on Lung development:
Mark Krasnow, University of Stanford, California

Brigid Hogan, Duke University, North Carolina

Selected research papers:
Review of the genetic and cellular mechanisms regulating lung development

Molecular diagnosis in lung diseases

When development goes wrong

Babies born prematurely some times lack surfactant and so the cell surface area is low and gases do not exchange well. Such "blue" babies are helped by putting them on respirators until the lungs have matured.

premature baby in an incubator
Image © Wellcome Images
Congenital defects that affect the lung include the disease Cystic Fibrosis. This is one of the UK's most common, life-threatening, inherited diseases and is caused by mutation in a gene called Cystic Fibrosis Trans-membrane conductance Regulator (CFTR) which controls components of sweat, digestive juices and mucus. The build up of mucus in the lungs is a characteristic problem for CF sufferers. Affected individuals often die young as a result of repeated bacterial infections and other complications.

The lung is also affected by diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis (TB). This involves bacterial infection, which can lead to build up of fluid that reduces oxygen up take. Pneumonia and TB are usually treated with antibiotics, although some forms of TB are becoming resistant to currently available antibiotics.

Find out more:
Respiratory Distress Syndrome
British Lung Foundation - provides support and advice for people with lung disease
The Cystic Fibrosis Trust - supports families affected by and research into CF.

Lung Formation Dress: Details

Lung dress: Polyurethane sponge, velvet (viscose and silk) Devore ‘paste’, perspex, nylon

The lung dress is made from soft, shiny sponge mimicking lung texture and the shine of surfactant, which is released as the lungs expand. The lung buds, represented at progressively more developed stages, are hung beneath the chest piece, made of a fine ‘crin’. The most elaborate branching pattern is printed on the velvet and chiffon “wing-like” adult lungs, ascending from the back of the dress.

Copyright Helen Storey


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