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Respiratory system and lung development

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Main structures of the respiratory system.

The development of the respiratory system is tightly associated with the digestive system from the beginning. It is therefore not surprising that defects in the foregut region often involve the cranial level of both systems. This article will focus on the five phases of development of the lungs, as well as their expansion within the body cavity. Familiarizing yourself with this topic will give you a deeper appreciation of the intricacies tied to development of our respiratory tree.

  1. Phases of development
    1. Embryonic 
    2. Pseudoglandular 
    3. Canalicular 
    4. Saccular 
    5. Alveolar 
  2. Lungs
  3. Clinical aspects
  4. Sources
+ Show all

Phases of development


The embryonic phase takes place between the third and sixth week of gestation. The development of the lungs begins during the third week, with the appearance of a respiratory diverticulum (lung bud) as an outgrowth from the ventral wall of the foregut. The lung bud expands in a ventral and caudal direction, invading the mesenchyme surrounding the foregut. Soon after, the lung bud being initially in open communication with the foregut, becomes separated from it eventually forms the esophagus.

Concurrently, the distal end of the lung bud bifurcates into the right and left primary bronchial buds, whereas the proximal end (stem) forms the trachea and larynx. By the fifth week of gestation, the primary bronchial buds form three secondary bronchial buds on the right side and two on the left, foreshadowing the primordial lobes of the lungs. Each secondary bronchial bud gives rise to ten tertiary bronchial buds on both sides, demarcating the end of the embryonic phase.


The pseudoglandular phase takes place during between the sixth and sixteenth week of gestation. The respiratory tree undergoes twelve to fourteen more generations of branching, resulting in the formation of terminal bronchioles. This passageway will be lined with a specific type of respiratory epithelium, simple columnar epithelium (ciliated) transitioning to simple cuboidal epithelium (some cilia).

Terminal bronchiole (anterior view)


The canalicular phase takes place during the sixteenth and twenty-eighth week of gestation. Each terminal bronchioles further divide into respiratory bronchioles, which become surrounded with an increase in vascularization. Subsequently, the lumens of the respiratory bronchioles become enlarged as a result of the thinning of their epithelial walls. This process sets up the differentiation of specialized cell types associated with the lungs.

Respiratory bronchiole (histological slide)


The saccular phase takes place between the twenty-eighth and thirty-sixth week of gestation. The respiratory bronchioles give rise to a final generation of terminal branches. These branches become invested in a dense network of capillaries, forming the terminal sacs (primitive alveoli) that are lined with type I and type II alveolar cells.

Type I pneumocytes (histological slide)

Type I alveolar cells (type I pneumocyte) are branched cells which are the gas exchange surface in the alveolus. Type II alveolar cells act as the ‘caretaker’ by responding to damage of the type I cells. Type II alveolar cells do this by dividing and acting as a progenitor cell for both type I and type II cells. In addition, they synthesise, store and release pulmonary surfactant into the alveolar hypophase, where it acts to optimise conditions for gas exchange. Although gas exchange is possible at this point, it is very limited as the alveoli are still immature and few in numbers. In fact, the formation of the terminal sacs continues during fetal and postnatal life. Prior to birth, there are approximately twenty million to seventy million terminal sacs, whereas the total number in a mature lung is approximately three-hundred to four-hundred million.

Type II pneumocytes (histological slide)


The alveolar phase is characterized by the maturation of the alveoli, a process that takes place during the end of fetal life and many years after birth.

Alveolus (anterior view)


During the development of the respiratory tree, the primordial lungs expand into the pericardioperitoneal canals of the body cavity. At this stage, these canals are in open communication with the peritoneal and pericardial cavities; they lie on each side of the foregut and are gradually filled by the expanding lungs.

Soon after, the pleuroperitoneal and pleuropericardial folds separate the pericardioperitoneal canals from the peritoneal and pericardial cavities, respectively. This results in the formation of the pleural cavity. The visceral pleura derives from the mesoderm that lines the outside of the lungs, whereas the parietal pleura derives from the somatic mesoderm that lines the body wall.

Pleural cavity (lateral-right view)

Note that because the lung bud is an outgrowth of the foregut, the lungs are composed of endodermal and mesodermal tissues. The endoderm gives rise to the mucosal lining of the bronchi and the epithelial cells of the alveoli. The mesoderm (middle layer of an embryo) helps give rise to the remaining components of the lungs. Specifically, the splanchnopleuric mesoderm, gives rise to: the vasculature, connective tissue, muscle, and cartilage associated with the bronchi, and the pleura of the lungs.

Left lung (medial view)

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