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During capillary transit, red blood cells (RBCs) must exchange large quantities of CO2 and O2 in typically less than one second, but the degree to which this is rate-limited by diffusion through cytoplasm is not known. Gas diffusivity is intuitively assumed to be fast and this would imply that the intracellular path-length, defined by RBC shape, is not a factor that could meaningfully compromise physiology. Here, we evaluated CO2 diffusivity (DCO2) in RBCs and related our results to cell shape. DCO2 inside RBCs was determined by fluorescence imaging of [H+] dynamics in cells under superfusion. This method is based on the principle that H+ diffusion is facilitated by CO2/HCO3- buffer and thus provides a read-out of DCO2. By imaging the spread of H+ ions from a photochemically-activated source (6-nitroveratraldehyde), DCO2 in human RBCs was calculated to be only 5% of the rate in water. Measurements on RBCs containing different hemoglobin concentrations demonstrated a halving of DCO2 with every 75 g/L increase in mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC). Thus, to compensate for highly-restricted cytoplasmic diffusion, RBC thickness must be reduced as appropriate for its MCHC. This can explain the inverse relationship between MCHC and RBC thickness determined from >250 animal species.


Sarah L Richardson, Pawel Swietach. Red blood cell thickness is evolutionarily constrained by slow, hemoglobin-restricted diffusion in cytoplasm. Scientific reports. 2016 Oct 25;6:36018

PMID: 27777410

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