When we breathe in oxygen, the red blood cells transport it around to every cell inthe body – a critical process that has far-reaching evolutionary consequences. The adventof aerobic respiration, which added the oxygen-utilising tricarboxylic acid cycle andelectron transport system onto anaerobicglycolysis, allowed aerobic organisms to extract18 times more energy from glucose in the form of ATP. Initially, organisms relied ondiffusion to transport oxygen to their cells, an inefficient system that kept themmicroscopic in size. Then with the development of the body cavity came a primitivecirculatory system involving the flow of interstitial fluid through the action of muscular movement; yet, body size remained small, as this system of circulation was limited in itseffectiveness. Nematode worms have a primitive type of body cavity (pseudocoelom)and circulation; these tiny animals consist of just under a 1000 cells and as such are barely visible with the naked eye. With the advent of a true circulatory system totransport highly specialised red blood cells close to every cell in the body no matter howlarge the organism, so that oxygen could now reach all cells, body size was able toexpand radically up to the largest animal to currently inhabit the earth: the blue whale,which can weight up to 150 tons and stretch 100 feet in length from head to tail.
Haemoglobin, an Oxygen Carrier
A drop of blood contains millions of red bloodcells, or erythrocytes. These specialised cells are likeflattened discs, which gives them a much greater surfacearea with which to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide inthe lungs and with body cells. Red blood cells are able tocarry oxygen so efficiently because of a special proteininside them: haemoglobin. In fact, it is the haemoglobinthat is responsible for the colour of the red blood cell. Haemoglobin contains a haem prosthetic group that has an iron atom at its centre. When the iron is bound to oxygen,the haem group is red in colour (oxyhameoglobin), and when it lacks oxygen(deoxygenated form) it is blue-red. As blood passes through the lungs, the haemoglobin picks up oxygen because of the increased oxygen pressure in the capillaries of the lungs,and can then release this oxygen to body cells where the oxygen pressure in the tissues islower. In addition, the red blood cells can pick up the waste product, carbon dioxide,some of which is carried by the haemoglobin (at a different site from where it carries theoxygen), while the rest is dissolved in the plasma. The high carbon dioxide levels in thetissues lowers the pH, and the binding of haemoglobin to carbon dioxide causes aconformational change that facilitates the release of oxygen. The carbon dioxide is thenreleased once the red blood cells reach the lungs.Haemoglobin is composed of four polypeptide chains, which in adults consist of two alpha () globin chains and two beta () globin chains (i.e. 22).
Each polypeptide has a haem prosthetic group attached, where each haem can bind one oxygen
Red blood cells