Surfactant is a complex substance containing phospholipids and a number of apoproteins. This essential fluid is produced by the Type II alveolar cells, and lines the alveoli and smallest bronchioles. Surfactant reduces surface tension throughout the lung, thereby contributing to its general compliance. It is also important because it stabilizes the alveoli. Laplace’s Law tells us that the pressure within a spherical structure with surface tension, such as the alveolus, is inversely proportional to the radius of the sphere (P=4T/r for a sphere with two liquid-gas interfaces, like a soap bubble, and P=2T/r for a sphere with one liquid-gas interface, like an alveolus: P=pressure, T=surface tension, and r=radius). That is, at a constant surface tension, small alveoli will generate bigger pressures within them than will large alveoli. Smaller alveoli would therefore be expected to empty into larger alveoli as lung volume decreases. This does not occur, however, because surfactant differentiallyreduces surface tension, more at lower volumes and less at higher volumes, leading to alveolar stability and reducing the likelihood of alveolar collapse.

Surfactant is formed relatively late in fetal life; thus premature infants born without adequate amounts experience respiratory distress and may die.

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