The internal environment and homeostasis – body function

An amoeba and a human liver cell both obtain their energy by breaking down certain organic nutrients. The chemical reactions involved in this intracellular process are remarkably similar in the two types of cells and involve the utilization of oxygen and the production of carbon dioxide. The amoeba picks up oxygen directly from the fluid surrounding it (its external environment) and eliminates carbon dioxide into the same fluid. But how can the liver cell and all other internal parts of the body obtain oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide when, unlike the amoeba, they are not in direct contact with the external environment—the air surrounding the body?

Figure 1-2 summarizes the exchanges of matter that occur in a person. Supplying oxygen is the function both of the respiratory system, which takes up oxygen from the external environment, and of the circulatory system, which distributes the oxygen to all parts of the body.


In addition, the circulatory system carries the carbon dioxide generated by all the cells of the body to the lungs, which eliminate it to the exterior. Similarly, the digestive and circulatory systems working together make nutrients from the external environment available to all the body’s cells. Wastes other than carbon dioxide are carried by the circulatory system from the cells that produced them to the kidneys and liver, which excrete them from the body. The kidneys also regulate the amounts of water and many essential minerals in the body. The nervous and hormonal systems coordinate and control the activities of all the other organ systems.

which all cells can survive and function. This fluid environment surrounding each cell is called the internal environment. The internal environment is not merely a theoretical physiological concept. It can be identified quite specifically in anatomical terms. The body’s internal environment is the extracellular fluid (literally, fluid outside the cells), which bathes each cell.

In other words, the environment in which each cell lives is not the external environment surrounding the entire body but the local extracellular fluid surrounding that cell. It is from this fluid that the cells receive oxygen and nutrients and into which they excrete wastes. A multicellular organism can survive only as long as it is able to maintain the composition of its internal environment in a state compatible with the sur vival of its individual cells. In 1857, Claude Bernard clearly described the central importance of the extracellular fluid: "It is the fixity of the internal environment that is the condition of free and independent life. . . . All the vital mechanisms, however varied they may be, have only one object, that of preserving constant the conditions of life in the internal environment."

The relative constancy of the internal environment is known as homeostasis. Changes do occur, but the magnitudes of these changes are small and are kept within narrow limits. As emphasized by the twentieth-century American physiologist, Walter B. Cannon, such stability can be achieved only through the operation of carefully coordinated physiological processes. The activities of the cells, tissues, and organs must be

A collection of body components that functions to keep a physical or chemical property of the internal environment relatively constant is termed a homeo-static control system. As will be described in detail in Chapter 7, such a system must detect changes in the magnitude of the property, relay this information to an appropriate site for integration with other incoming information, and elicit a "command" to particular cells to alter their rates of function in such a way as to restore the property toward its original value.

The description at the beginning of this chapter of how sweating is brought about in response to increased heat generation during exercise is an example of a homeostatic control system in operation; the sweating (more precisely, the evaporation of the sweat) removes heat from the body and keeps the body temperature relatively constant even though more heat is being produced by the exercising muscles.

Here is another example: A mountaineer who ascends to high altitude suffers a decrease in the concentration of oxygen in his or her blood because of the decrease in the amount of oxygen in inspired air; the nervous system detects this change in the blood and increases its signals to the skeletal muscles responsible for breathing. The result is that the mountaineer breathes more rapidly and deeply, and the increase in the amount of air inspired helps keep the blood oxy gen concentration from falling as much as it otherwise would.

To summarize, the activities of every individual cell in the body fall into two categories: (1) Each cell performs for itself all those fundamental basic cellular processes—movement of materials across its membrane, extraction of energy, protein synthesis, and so on—that represent the minimal requirements for maintaining its own individual integrity and life; and (2) each cell simultaneously performs one or more specialized activities that, in concert with the activities performed by the other cells of its tissue or organ system, contribute to the survival of the body by maintaining the stable internal environment required by all cells.