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Getting A Breath Ahead : How Our Lungs Form
Lungs. We all have them, but when does this vital organ form? Well, let’s doodle it out. Lungs start forming during the embryonic phase, or four weeks of gestational age. Early in the pregnancy the baby is a ball of cells that eventually separate into layers, one of which will be the organs of the gut. It is from these cells that the lungs develop. During this stage the larynx, or voice box, and the trachea, or windpipe are created from the foregut. Two small buds also branch off, which eventually become the lungs. Embryos than enter the pseudoglandular phase during which there is further branching of the original lung buds. Each bud forms an independent respiratory unit enveloped by capillary vessels that deliver blood to the lungs for oxygen. Taking approximately 25 weeks of gestational age is the canalicular phase that establishes the air-blood barrier that permits oxygen to enter blood and carbon dioxide to exit respiratory capillaries into the lungs for exhalation. Lung development then moves into the saccular phase. Surfactant – the substance that keeps lung tissue intact - is produced in the lungs. It also helps during delivery, as surfactant allows the lungs to drain of amniotic fluid and fill with air. The lung’s final phase of development, which extends into early childhood, is the alveolar phase. During this time more surfactant is produced and more bronchioles and air sacs, called alveoli, are formed. It is in this final stage the gas-exchange tissues of the lungs are formed which allows for the transport of more air as a baby. Lung development is an extremely critical part of a baby’s development prior to exiting the womb, which is why for preemies it is challenging when they arrive early. Often, preemies do not have a sufficient amount of surfactant which is essential to breathing and they require the support of ventilation when they arrive and are placed in an incubator until their lungs further evolve.