Diffusive shunting of gases and other molecules in the renal vasculature: Physiological and evolutionary significance

Jennifer P. Ngo, Connie P.C. Ow, Bruce S. Gardiner, Saptarshi Kar, James T. Pearson, David W. Smith, Roger G. Evans

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Countercurrent systems have evolved in a variety of biological systems that allow transfer of heat, gases, and solutes. For example, in the renal medulla, the countercurrent arrangement of vascular and tubular elements facilitates the trapping of urea and other solutes in the inner medulla, which in turn enables the formation of concentrated urine. Arteries and veins in the cortex are also arranged in a countercurrent fashion, as are descending and ascending vasa recta in the medulla. For countercurrent diffusion to occur, barriers to diffusion must be small. This appears to be characteristic of larger vessels in the renal cortex. There must also be gradients in the concentration of molecules between afferent and efferent vessels, with the transport of molecules possible in either direction. Such gradients exist for oxygen in both the cortex and medulla, but there is little evidence that large gradients exist for other molecules such as carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, superoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia. There is some experimental evidence for arterial-to-venous (AV) oxygen shunting. Mathematical models also provide evidence for oxygen shunting in both the cortex and medulla. However, the quantitative significance of AV oxygen shunting remains a matter of controversy. Thus, whereas the countercurrent arrangement of vasa recta in the medulla appears to have evolved as a consequence of the evolution of Henle’s loop, the evolutionary significance of the intimate countercurrent arrangement of blood vessels in the renal cortex remains an enigma.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)R797-R810
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Regulatory Integrative and Comparative Physiology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2016


  • Ammonia
  • Arteries
  • Blood vessels
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Countercurrent shunting
  • Hydrogen sulfide
  • Nitric oxide
  • Oxygen

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