- Describe the structure and function of each region of the mammalian nephron (glomerulus, Bowman’s capsule, proximal convoluted tubule, Loop of Henle, distal convoluted tubule, and collecting duct)
- Recognize the roles of active/passive transport, osmotic gradients, and countercurrent exchange in nephron function
- Explain integrated hormonal regulation of water/ion regulation by the mammalian kidney
The information below was adapted from OpenStax Biology 41.2
Although the kidneys are the major osmoregulatory organ, the skin and lungs also play a role in the process. Water and electrolytes are lost through sweat glands in the skin, which helps moisturize and cool the skin surface, while the lungs expel a small amount of water in the form of mucous secretions and via evaporation of water vapor.
Kidneys: The Main Osmoregulatory Organ
The kidneys, in mammals, are a pair of bean-shaped structures that are located just below and posterior to the liver in the peritoneal cavity. The adrenal glands sit on top of each kidney and are also called the suprarenal glands. Kidneys filter blood and purify it. All the blood in the human body is filtered many times a day by the kidneys; these organs use up almost 25 percent of the oxygen absorbed through the lungs to perform this function. Oxygen allows the kidney cells to efficiently manufacture chemical energy in the form of ATP through aerobic respiration. The filtrate coming out of the kidneys is called urine.
Externally, the kidneys are surrounded by three layers. The outermost layer is a tough connective tissue layer called the renal fascia. The second layer is called the perirenal fat capsule, which helps anchor the kidneys in place. The third and innermost layer is the renal capsule. Internally, the kidney has three regions– an outer cortex, a medulla in the middle, and the renal pelvis in the region called the hilum of the kidney. The hilum is the concave part of the bean-shape where blood vessels and nerves enter and exit the kidney; it is also the point of exit for the ureters. The renal cortex is granular due to the presence of nephrons, the functional unit of the kidney. The medulla consists of multiple pyramidal tissue masses, called the renal pyramids. In between the pyramids are spaces called renal columns through which the blood vessels pass. The tips of the pyramids, called renal papillae, point toward the renal pelvis. There are, on average, eight renal pyramids in each kidney. The renal pyramids along with the adjoining cortical region are called the lobes of the kidney. The renal pelvis leads to the ureter on the outside of the kidney. On the inside of the kidney, the renal pelvis branches out into two or three extensions called the major calyces, which further branch into the minor calyces. The ureters are urine-bearing tubes that exit the kidney and empty into the urinary bladder.
Because the kidney filters blood, its network of blood vessels is an important component of its structure and function. The arteries, veins, and nerves that supply the kidney enter and exit at the renal hilum. Renal blood supply starts with the branching of the aorta into the renal arteries (which are each named based on the region of the kidney they pass through) and ends with the exiting of the renal veins to join the inferior vena cava. The renal arteries split into several segmental arteries upon entering the kidneys. Each segmental artery splits further into several interlobar arteries and enters the renal columns, which supply the renal lobes. The interlobar arteries split at the junction of the renal cortex and medulla to form the arcuate arteries. The arcuate “bow shaped” arteries form arcs along the base of the medullary pyramids. Cortical radiate arteries, as the name suggests, radiate out from the arcuate arteries. The cortical radiate arteries branch into numerous afferent arterioles, and then enter the capillaries supplying the nephrons. Veins trace the path of the arteries and have similar names, except there are no segmental veins.
As mentioned previously, the functional unit of the kidney is the nephron. Each kidney is made up of over one million nephrons that dot the renal cortex, giving it a granular appearance when sectioned sagittally. There are two types of nephrons: cortical nephrons (85 percent), which are deep in the renal cortex, and juxtamedullary nephrons (15 percent), which lie in the renal cortex close to the renal medulla. A nephron consists of three parts: a renal corpuscle, a renal tubule, and the associated capillary network, which originates from the cortical radiate arteries.
The renal corpuscle, located in the renal cortex, is made up of a network of capillaries known as the glomerulus and the capsule, a cup-shaped chamber that surrounds it, called the glomerular or Bowman’s capsule.
The renal tubule is a long and convoluted structure that emerges from the glomerulus and can be divided into three parts based on function. The first part is called the proximal convoluted tubule (PCT) due to its proximity to the glomerulus; it stays in the renal cortex. The second part is called the loop of Henle, or nephritic loop, because it forms a loop (with descending and ascending limbs) that goes through the renal medulla. The third part of the renal tubule is called the distal convoluted tubule (DCT) and this part is also restricted to the renal cortex. The DCT, which is the last part of the nephron, connects and empties its contents into collecting ducts that line the medullary pyramids. The collecting ducts amass contents from multiple nephrons and fuse together as they enter the papillae of the renal medulla.
Capillary Network within the Nephron
The capillary network that originates from the renal arteries supplies the nephron with blood that needs to be filtered. The branch that enters the glomerulus is called the afferent arteriole. The branch that exits the glomerulus is called the efferent arteriole. Within the glomerulus, the network of capillaries is called the glomerular capillary bed. Once the efferent arteriole exits the glomerulus, it forms the peritubular capillary network, which surrounds and interacts with parts of the renal tubule. In cortical nephrons, the peritubular capillary network surrounds the PCT and DCT. In juxtamedullary nephrons, the peritubular capillary network forms a network around the loop of Henle and is called the vasa recta.
Kidney Function and Physiology
Kidneys filter blood in a three-step process. First, the nephrons filter blood that runs through the capillary network in the glomerulus. Almost all solutes, except for proteins, are filtered out into the glomerulus by a process called glomerular filtration. Second, the filtrate is collected in the renal tubules. Most of the solutes get reabsorbed in the PCT by a process called tubular reabsorption. In the loop of Henle, the filtrate continues to exchange solutes and water with the renal medulla and the peritubular capillary network. Water is also reabsorbed during this step. Then, additional solutes and wastes are secreted into the kidney tubules during tubular secretion, which is, in essence, the opposite process to tubular reabsorption. The collecting ducts collect filtrate coming from the nephrons and fuse in the medullary papillae. From here, the papillae deliver the filtrate, now called urine, into the minor calyces that eventually connect to the ureters through the renal pelvis.
Glomerular filtration filters out most of the solutes due to high blood pressure and specialized membranes in the afferent arteriole. The blood pressure in the glomerulus is maintained independent of factors that affect systemic blood pressure. The “leaky” connections between the endothelial cells of the glomerular capillary network allow solutes to pass through easily. All solutes in the glomerular capillaries, except for macromolecules like proteins, pass through by passive diffusion. There is no energy requirement at this stage of the filtration process. Glomerular filtration rate (GFR) is the volume of glomerular filtrate formed per minute by the kidneys. GFR is regulated by multiple mechanisms and is an important indicator of kidney function.
Tubular Reabsorption and Secretion
Tubular reabsorption occurs in the PCT part of the renal tubule. Almost all nutrients are reabsorbed, and this occurs either by passive or active transport. Reabsorption of water and some key electrolytes are regulated and can be influenced by hormones. Sodium (Na+) is the most abundant ion and most of it is reabsorbed by active transport and then transported to the peritubular capillaries. Because Na+ is actively transported out of the tubule, water follows it to even out the osmotic pressure. Water is also independently reabsorbed into the peritubular capillaries due to the presence of aquaporins, or water channels, in the PCT. This occurs due to the low blood pressure and high osmotic pressure in the peritubular capillaries. However, every solute has a transport maximum and the excess is not reabsorbed.
In the loop of Henle, the permeability of the membrane changes. The descending limb is permeable to water, not solutes; the opposite is true for the ascending limb. Additionally, the loop of Henle invades the renal medulla, which is naturally high in salt concentration and tends to absorb water from the renal tubule and concentrate the filtrate. The osmotic gradient increases as it moves deeper into the medulla. Because two sides of the loop of Henle perform opposing functions, it acts as a countercurrent multiplier. The vasa recta around it acts as the countercurrent exchanger.
By the time the filtrate reaches the DCT, most of the urine and solutes have been reabsorbed. If the body requires additional water, all of it can be reabsorbed at this point. Further reabsorption is controlled by hormones, which will be discussed in a later section. Excretion of wastes occurs due to lack of reabsorption combined with tubular secretion. Undesirable products like metabolic wastes, urea, uric acid, and certain drugs, are excreted by tubular secretion. Most of the tubular secretion happens in the DCT, but some occurs in the early part of the collecting duct. Kidneys also maintain an acid-base balance by secreting excess H+ ions.
Although parts of the renal tubules are named proximal and distal, in a cross-section of the kidney, the tubules are placed close together and in contact with each other and the glomerulus. This allows for exchange of chemical messengers between the different cell types. For example, the DCT ascending limb of the loop of Henle has masses of cells called macula densa, which are in contact with cells of the afferent arterioles called juxtaglomerular cells. Together, the macula densa and juxtaglomerular cells form the juxtaglomerular complex (JGC). The JGC is an endocrine structure that secretes the enzyme renin and the hormone erythropoietin. When hormones trigger the macula densa cells in the DCT due to variations in blood volume, blood pressure, or electrolyte balance, these cells can immediately communicate the problem to the capillaries in the afferent and efferent arterioles, which can constrict or relax to change the glomerular filtration rate of the kidneys.
This video provides an overview of the mammalian excretory system:
And this video provides a step-by-step description of mammalian kidney function: http://www.sumanasinc.com/webcontent/animations/content/kidney.html
Hormonal Regulation of Osmoregulation in Mammals
The information below was adapted from OpenStax Biology 41.5
While the kidneys operate to maintain osmotic balance and blood pressure in the body, they also act in concert with hormones. Hormones are small molecules that act as messengers within the body. Hormones are typically secreted from one cell and travel in the bloodstream to affect a target cell in another portion of the body. Different regions of the nephron bear specialized cells that have receptors to respond to chemical messengers and hormones.
|Hormones That Affect Osmoregulation|
|Epinephrine and Norepinephrine||Adrenal medulla||Can decrease kidney function temporarily by vasoconstriction|
|Renin||Kidney nephrons||Increases blood pressure by acting on angiotensinogen|
|Angiotensin||Liver||Angiotensin II affects multiple processes and increases blood pressure|
|Aldosterone||Adrenal cortex||Prevents loss of sodium and water|
|Anti-diuretic hormone (vasopressin)||Hypothalamus (stored in the posterior pituitary)||Prevents water loss|
|Atrial natriuretic peptide||Heart atrium||Decreases blood pressure by acting as a vasodilator and increasing glomerular filtration rate; decreases sodium reabsorption in kidneys|
Epinephrine and Norepinephrine
Epinephrine and norepinephrine are released by the adrenal medulla and nervous system respectively. They are the flight/fight hormones that are released when the body is under extreme stress. During stress, much of the body’s energy is used to combat imminent danger. Kidney function is halted temporarily by epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones function by acting directly on the smooth muscles of blood vessels to constrict them. Once the afferent arterioles are constricted, blood flow into the nephrons stops. These hormones go one step further and trigger the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system.
The renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system proceeds through several steps to produce angiotensin II, which acts to stabilize blood pressure and volume. Renin (secreted by a part of the juxtaglomerular complex) is produced by the granular cells of the afferent and efferent arterioles. Thus, the kidneys control blood pressure and volume directly. Renin acts on angiotensinogen, which is made in the liver and converts it to angiotensin I. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) converts angiotensin I to angiotensin II. Angiotensin II raises blood pressure by constricting blood vessels. It also triggers the release of the mineralocorticoid aldosterone from the adrenal cortex, which in turn stimulates the renal tubules to reabsorb more sodium. Angiotensin II also triggers the release of anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) from the hypothalamus, leading to water retention in the kidneys. It acts directly on the nephrons and decreases glomerular filtration rate. Medically, blood pressure can be controlled by drugs that inhibit ACE (called ACE inhibitors).
Mineralocorticoids are hormones synthesized by the adrenal cortex that affect osmotic balance. Aldosterone is a mineralocorticoid that regulates sodium levels in the blood. Almost all of the sodium in the blood is reclaimed by the renal tubules under the influence of aldosterone. Because sodium is always reabsorbed by active transport and water follows sodium to maintain osmotic balance, aldosterone manages not only sodium levels but also the water levels in body fluids. In contrast, the aldosterone also stimulates potassium secretion concurrently with sodium reabsorption. In contrast, absence of aldosterone means that no sodium gets reabsorbed in the renal tubules and all of it gets excreted in the urine. In addition, the daily dietary potassium load is not secreted and the retention of K+ can cause a dangerous increase in plasma K+ concentration. Patients who have Addison’s disease have a failing adrenal cortex and cannot produce aldosterone. They lose sodium in their urine constantly, and if the supply is not replenished, the consequences can be fatal.
As previously discussed, antidiuretic hormone or ADH (also called vasopressin), as the name suggests, helps the body conserve water when body fluid volume, especially that of blood, is low. It is formed by the hypothalamus and is stored and released from the posterior pituitary. It acts by inserting aquaporins in the collecting ducts and promotes reabsorption of water. ADH also acts as a vasoconstrictor and increases blood pressure during hemorrhaging.
Atrial Natriuretic Peptide Hormone
The atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) lowers blood pressure by acting as a vasodilator. It is released by cells in the atrium of the heart in response to high blood pressure and in patients with sleep apnea. ANP affects salt release, and because water passively follows salt to maintain osmotic balance, it also has a diuretic effect. ANP also prevents sodium reabsorption by the renal tubules, decreasing water reabsorption (thus acting as a diuretic) and lowering blood pressure. Its actions suppress the actions of aldosterone, ADH, and renin.