- Uwe Sauer, ETH, Zurich, Switzerland
- Biophysics, Computational complexity, Systems biology
The origin of the allometric scaling of lung ventilation in mammals
How mammals adapt their breath to body activity – and how this depends on body sizeRecommended by Wolfram Liebermeister based on reviews by Elad Noor, Oliver Ebenhöh, Stefan Schuster and Megumi Inoue
How fast and how deep do animals breathe, and how does this depend on how active they are? To answer this question, one needs to dig deeply into how breathing works and what biophysical processes it involves. And one needs to think about body size.
It is impressive how nature adapts the same body plan – e.g. the skeletal structure of mammals – to various shapes and sizes. From mice to whales, also the functioning of most organs remains the same; they are just differently scaled. Scaling does not just mean “making bigger or smaller”. As already noted by Galilei, body shapes change as they are adapted to body dimensions, and the same holds for physiological variables. Many such variables, for instance, heartbeat rates, follow scaling laws of the form y~x^a, where x denotes body mass and the exponent a is typically a multiple of ¼ . These unusual exponents – instead of multiples of ⅓, which would be expected from simple geometrical scaling – are why these laws are called “allometric”. Kleiber’s law for metabolic rates, with a scaling exponent of ¾, is a classic example . As shown by G. West, allometric laws can be explained through a few simple steps . In his models, he focused on network-like organs such as the vascular system and assumed that these systems show a self-similar structure, with a fixed minimal unit (for instance, capillaries) but varying numbers of hierarchy levels depending on body size. To determine the flow through such networks, he employed biophysical models and optimality principles (for instance, assuming that oxygen must be transported at a minimal mechanical effort), and showed that the solutions – and the physiological variables – respect the known scaling relations.
The paper “The origin of the allometric scaling of lung ventilation in mammals“ by Noël et al. , applies this thinking to the depth and rate of breathing in mammals. Scaling laws describing breathing in resting animals have been known since the 1950s , with exponents of 1 (for tidal volume) and -¼ (for breathing frequency). Equipped with a detailed biophysical model, Noël et al. revisit this question, extending these laws to other metabolic regimes. Their starting point is a model of the human lung, developed previously by two of the authors , which assumes that we meet our oxygen demand with minimal lung movements. To state this as an optimization problem, the model combines two submodels: a mechanical model describing the energetic effort of ventilation and a highly detailed model of convection and diffusion in self-similar lung geometries. Breathing depths and rates are computed by numerical optimization, and to obtain results for mammals of any size many of the model parameters are described by known scaling laws. As expected, the depth of breathing (measured by tidal volume) scales almost proportionally with body mass and increases with metabolic demand, while the breathing rate decreases with body mass, with an exponent of about -¼. However, the laws for the breathing rate hold only for basal activity; at higher metabolic rates, which are modeled here for the first time, the exponent deviates strongly from this value, in line with empirical data.
Why is this paper important? The authors present a highly complex model of lung physiology that integrates a wide range of biophysical details and passes a difficult test: the successful prediction of unexplained scaling exponents. These scaling relations may help us transfer insights from animal models to humans and in reverse: data for breathing during exercise, which are easy to measure in humans, can be extrapolated to other species. Aside from the scaling laws, the model also reveals physiological mechanisms. In the larger lung branches, oxygen is transported mainly by air movement (convection), while in smaller branches air flow is slow and oxygen moves by diffusion. The transition between these regimes can occur at different depths in the lung: as the authors state, “the localization of this transition determines how ventilation should be controlled to minimize its energetic cost at any metabolic regime”. In the model, the optimal location for the transition depends on oxygen demand [5, 6]: the transition occurs deeper in the lung in exercise regimes than at rest, allowing for more oxygen to be taken up. However, the effects of this shift depend on body size: while small mammals generally use the entire exchange surface of their lungs, large mammals keep a reserve for higher activities, which becomes accessible as their transition zone moves at high metabolic rates. Hence, scaling can entail qualitative differences between species!
Altogether, the paper shows how the dynamics of ventilation depend on lung morphology. But this may also play out in the other direction: if energy-efficient ventilation depends on body activity, and therefore on ecological niches, a niche may put evolutionary pressures on lung geometry. Hence, by understanding how deep and fast animals breathe, we may also learn about how behavior, physiology, and anatomy co-evolve.
 West GB, Brown JH, Enquist BJ (1997) A General Model for the Origin of Allometric Scaling Laws in Biology. Science 276 (5309), 122–126. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.276.5309.122
 Kleiber M (1947) Body size and metabolic rate. Physiological Reviews, 27, 511–541. https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.19126.96.36.1991
 Noël F., Karamaoun C., Dempsey J. A. and Mauroy B. (2021) The origin of the allometric scaling of lung's ventilation in mammals. arXiv, 2005.12362, ver. 6 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer community in Mathematical and Computational Biology. https://arxiv.org/abs/2005.12362
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