Unit Six. Animal Life


25. The Path of Food Through the Animal Body


25.6. The Small and Large Intestines


Digestion and Absorption: The Small Intestine

The digestive tract exits from the stomach into the small intestine (figure 25.13), where the breaking down of large molecules into small ones occurs. Only relatively small portions of food are introduced into the small intestine at one time, to allow time for acid to be neutralized and enzymes to act. The small intestine is the true digestive vat of the body. Within it, carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, proteins into amino acids, and fats into fatty acids. Once these small molecules have been produced, they pass across the epithelial wall of the small intestine into the bloodstream.

Some of the enzymes necessary for these digestive processes are secreted by the cells of the intestinal wall. Most, however, are made in a large gland called the pancreas (discussed in section 25.8), situated near the junction of the stomach and the small intestine. It is one of the body’s major exocrine glands (secreting through ducts). The pancreas sends its secretions into the small intestine through a duct that empties into its initial segment, the duodenum. Your small intestine is approximately 6 meters long—unwound and stood on its end, it would be far taller than you are! Only the first 25 centimeters, about 4% of the total length, is the duodenum. It is within this initial segment, where the pancreatic enzymes enter the small intestine, that digestion occurs.

Much of the food energy the vertebrate body harvests is obtained from fats. The digestion of fats is carried out by a collection of molecules known as bile salts secreted into the duodenum from the liver (also discussed in section 25.8). Because fats are insoluble in water, they enter the intestine as drops within the watery chyme. The bile salts, which are partly lipid-soluble and partly water-soluble, work like detergents. They combine with fats to form microscopic droplets in a process called emulsification. These tiny droplets have greater surface areas upon which the enzyme that breaks down fats, called lipase, can work. This allows the digestion of fats to proceed more rapidly.

Two areas make up the rest of the small intestine (96% of its length), the jejunum and the ileum. Digestion continues into the jejunum, but the ileum is devoted to absorbing water and the products of digestion into the bloodstream. The lining of the small intestine is folded into ridges, as shown in figure 25.13a. The ridges are covered with fine fingerlike projections called villi (singular, villus), shown in the first enlarged view, but each too small to see with the naked eye. In turn, each of the cells covering a villus is covered on its outer surface by a field of cytoplasmic projections called microvilli. The enlargement of the villus shows epithelial cells lining the villus, and the further enlargement of these cells shows the microvilli on the surface side of the cells. Scanning and transmission electron micrographs in figure 25.13b, c give you different perspectives of the microvilli. Both villi and microvilli greatly increase the absorptive surface of the lining of the small intestine. The aver age surface area of the small intestine is about 300 square meters, more than the surface of many swimming pools!



Figure 25.13. The small intestine.

(a) A cross section of the small intestine shows the structure of the villi and microvilli. (b) Microvilli, shown in a scanning electron micrograph, are very densely clustered, giving the small intestine an enormous surface area, which is very important for efficient absorption. (c) Intestinal microvilli as shown in a transmission electron micrograph.


The amount of material passing through the small intestine is startlingly large. Per day, an average human consumes about 800 grams of solid food, and 1,200 milliliters of water, for a total volume of about 2 liters. To this amount is added about 1.5 liters of fluid from the salivary glands, 2 liters from the gastric secretions of the stomach, 1.5 liters from the pancreas, 0.5 liters from the liver, and 1.5 liters of intestinal secretions. The total adds up to a remarkable 9 liters—more than 10% of the total volume of your body! However, although the flux is great, the net passage is small. Almost all these fluids and solids are reabsorbed during their passage through the small intestine— about 8.5 liters across the walls of the small intestine and 0.35 liters across the wall of the large intestine. Of the 800 grams of solids and 9 liters of liquids that enter the digestive tract each day, only about 50 grams of solids and 100 milliliters of liquids leave the body as feces. The fluid absorption efficiency of the digestive tract thus approaches 99%, very high indeed.


Concentration of Solids: The Large Intestine

The large intestine, or colon, is much shorter than the small intestine, approximately 1 meter long, but it is called the large intestine because of its larger diameter. The small intestine empties directly into the large intestine at a junction where the cecum and the appendix are located, which are two structures no longer actively used in humans. No digestion takes place within the large intestine, and only about 6% to 7% of fluid absorption occurs there. The large intestine is not convoluted, lying instead in three relatively straight segments, and its inner surface does not possess villi. As a consequence, the large intestine has only one-thirtieth the absorptive surface area of the small intestine. Although some water, sodium, and vitamin K are absorbed across its walls, the primary function of the large intestine is to act as a refuse dump. Within it, undigested material, including large amounts of plant fiber and cellulose, is compacted into the final excretory product, feces, and stored. Many bacteria live and actively divide within the large intestine. Bacterial fermentation produces gas within the colon at a rate of about 500 milliliters per day. This rate increases greatly after the consumption of beans or other vegetable matter because the passage of undigested plant material (fiber) into the large intestine provides substrates for fermentation.

The final segment of the digestive tract is a short extension of the large intestine called the rectum. Compact solids within the colon pass through the rectum as a result of the peristaltic contractions of the muscles encasing the large intestine, and then out of the body through the anus.


Key Learning Outcome 25.6. Most digestion occurs in the initial upper portion of the small intestine, called the duodenum. The rest of the small intestine is devoted to absorption of water and the products of digestion. The large intestine compacts residual solid wastes.