The Cardiovascular System: Blood

Single-celled organisms do not need blood. They obtain nutrients directly from and excrete wastes directly into their environment. The human organism cannot do that. Our large, complex bodies need blood to deliver nutrients to and remove wastes from our trillions of cells. The heart pumps blood throughout the body in a network of blood vessels. Together, these three components—blood, heart, and vessels—makes up the cardiovascular system. This chapter focuses on the medium of transport: blood.


A single drop of blood contains millions of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. One of each type is shown here, isolated from a scanning electron micrograph.

Blood transfusions in humans were risky procedures until the discovery of the major human blood groups by Karl Landsteiner, an Austrian biologist and physician, in 1900. Until that point, physicians did not understand that death sometimes followed blood transfusions, when the type of donor blood infused into the patient was incompatible with the patient’s own blood. Blood groups are determined by the presence or absence of specific marker molecules on the plasma membranes of erythrocytes. With their discovery, it became possible for the first time to match patient-donor blood types and prevent transfusion reactions and deaths.

The erythrocyte, commonly known as a red blood cell (or RBC), is by far the most common formed element: A single drop of blood contains millions of erythrocytes and just thousands of leukocytes. Specifically, males have about 5.4 million erythrocytes per microliter (µL) of blood, and females have approximately 4.8 million per µL. In fact, erythrocytes are estimated to make up about 25 percent of the total cells in the body. As you can imagine, they are quite small cells, with a mean diameter of only about 7–8 micrometers (µm). The primary functions of erythrocytes are to pick up inhaled oxygen from the lungs and transport it to the body’s tissues, and to pick up some (about 24 percent) carbon dioxide waste at the tissues and transport it to the lungs for exhalation. Erythrocytes remain within the vascular network. Although leukocytes typically leave the blood vessels to perform their defensive functions, movement of erythrocytes from the blood vessels is abnormal.

Platelets are key players in hemostasis, the process by which the body seals a ruptured blood vessel and prevents further loss of blood. Although rupture of larger vessels usually requires medical intervention, hemostasis is quite effective in dealing with small, simple wounds. There are three steps to the process: vascular spasm, the formation of a platelet plug, and coagulation (blood clotting). Failure of any of these steps will result in hemorrhage—excessive bleeding.

The lifespan of the formed elements is very brief. Although one type of leukocyte called memory cells can survive for years, most erythrocytes, leukocytes, and platelets normally live only a few hours to a few weeks. Thus, the body must form new blood cells and platelets quickly and continuously. When you donate a unit of blood during a blood drive (approximately 475 mL, or about 1 pint), your body typically replaces the donated plasma within 24 hours, but it takes about 4 to 6 weeks to replace the blood cells. This restricts the frequency with which donors can contribute their blood. The process by which this replacement occurs is called hemopoiesis, or hematopoiesis (from the Greek root haima- = “blood”; -poiesis = “production”).

The leukocyte, commonly known as a white blood cell (or WBC), is a major component of the body’s defenses against disease. Leukocytes protect the body against invading microorganisms and body cells with mutated DNA, and they clean up debris. Platelets are essential for the repair of blood vessels when damage to them has occurred; they also provide growth factors for healing and repair.

Recall that blood is a connective tissue. Like all connective tissues, it is made up of cellular elements and an extracellular matrix. The cellular elements—referred to as the formed elements—include red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs), and cell fragments called platelets. The extracellular matrix, called plasma, makes blood unique among connective tissues because it is fluid. This fluid, which is mostly water, perpetually suspends the formed elements and enables them to circulate throughout the body within the cardiovascular system.

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