OXYGEN DIFFUSION IN SIMPLE ORGANISMS

**Introduction:** Many simple organisms do not have specialized respiratory structures and instead obtain oxygen by diffusion through their body surfaces.

**Importance:** We can use a simple equation to assess properties of an organism that can survive by diffusion alone.

**Question:** How is the oxygen need of an organism related to its metabolism and size?

Variable:

S |
concentration of O |

C |
rate of oxygen consumption ((cm |

r |
radius of spherical organism (cm) |

K |
diffusion constant ((cm |

**Methods:** E. Newton Harvey (1928) developed the following equation to describe the concentration of oxygen required to supply a spherical organism with oxygen by diffusion:

where S is the required concentration of oxygen at the surface of an organism, C is the rate of oxygen consumption (cm^3 of oxygen/cm^3 tissue/min), r is the radius of the organism (cm), and K is the diffusion constant (cm^2/atm/min).

We can plot S as a linear function of C and as a parabolic function of r. A diffusion constant of 11x10^-6 cm^2/atm/min is typical for many animal tissues

**Interpretation:** We can see that as organism metabolism (oxygen consumption) or organism size increases, a greater amount of oxygen is needed at the surface of the organism for survival. Well areated water typically contains 0.21 atm oxygen.
We can compare the intercept S = 0.21 with the graphs of C and r. Even well-aerated water is well below the required oxygen level for organisms of large size or high metabolism.

**Conclusions:** By trying hypothetical organisms in the equation, one sees that for an organism to survive by diffusion alone, it must either be very small or have a very low metabolic rate. Larger organisms or those with high metabolic rates
must develop respiratory structures in order to meet their oxygen needs.

Additional Question:

1. How does the slope of S as a linear function of C change with increasing radius? What does this imply about an organism?

**Source:** Schmidt-Nielsen, K. 1990. Animal Physiology: Adaptation and environment,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Harvey, E. N. 1928. The oxygen consumption of luminous bacteria. J. Gen. Physiol. 11:469-475.

*Copyright 1999 M. Beals, L. Gross, S. Harrell*