Site of Fluid Secretion in Small Airways

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The secretion and management of readily transportable airway surface liquid (ASL) along the respiratory tract is crucial for the clearance of debris and pathogens from the lungs. In proximal large airways, submucosal glands (SMGs) can produce ASL. However, in distal small airways, SMGs are absent, although the lumens of these airways are, uniquely, highly plicated. Little is known about the production and maintenance of ASL in small airways, but using electrophysiology, we recently found that native porcine small airways simultaneously secrete and absorb. How these airways can concurrently transport ASL in opposite directions is puzzling. Using high expression of the Na-K-2Cl cotransport (NKCC) 1 protein (SLC12a2) as a phenotypic marker for fluid secretory cells, immunofluorescence microscopy of porcine small airways revealed two morphologically separated sets of luminal epithelial cells. NKCC1 was abundantly expressed by most cells in the contraluminal regions of the pleats but highly expressed very infrequently by cells in the luminal folds of the epithelial plications. In larger proximal airways, the acini of SMGs expressed NKCC1 prominently, but cells expressing NKCC1 in the surface epithelium were sparse. Our findings indicate that, in the small airway, cells in the pleats of the epithelium secrete ASL, whereas, in the larger proximal airways, SMGs mainly secrete ASL. We propose a mechanism in which the locations of secretory cells in the base of pleats and of absorptive cells in luminal folds physically help maintain a constant volume of ASL in small airways.

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