The substances removed from the blood by the kidneys—toxins, urea, water, and mineral salts—form an amber-colored liquid called urine. Urine is made in structures called nephrons (NEF-RAHNZ), the functional units of the kidney. Nephrons are tiny tubes in the kidneys. One end of a nephron is a cup-shaped capsule surrounding a tight ball of capillaries that retains cells and large molecules in the blood and passes wastes dissolved in water through the nephron. The cup-shaped capsule is called Bowman's capsule. Within each Bowman's capsule, an arteriole enters and splits into a fine network of capillaries called a glomerulus (gloh-MER-yoo-luhs).
Take a close look at the structure of the nephron, shown in Figure 48-15. Notice the close association between a nephron of the kidney and capillaries of the circulatory system. Initially, fluid passes from the glomerulus into a Bowman's capsule of the nephron. As the fluid travels through the nephron, nutrients that passed into the Bowman's capsule are reabsorbed into the bloodstream. What normally remains in the nephron are waste products and some water, which form urine that passes out of the kidney.
Each kidney consists of more than a million nephrons. If they were stretched out, the nephrons from both kidneys would extend for 80 km (50 mi). As you read about the structure of a nephron, locate each part in Figure 48-15.
The outer region of the kidney, the renal cortex, contains structures that filter blood brought by the renal artery. The inner region, or renal medulla, consists of structures that carry urine, which empties into the funnel-shaped renal pelvis. The renal vein transports the filtered blood back to the heart.
Each nephron has a cup-shaped structure, called a Bowman's capsule, that encloses a bed of capillaries. This capillary bed, called a glomerulus, receives blood from the renal artery. Fluids are forced from the blood through the capillary walls and into the Bowman's capsule. The material filtered from the blood then flows through the renal tubule, which consists of three parts: the proximal convoluted tubule, the loop of Henle, and the distal convoluted tubule. Blood remaining in the glomerulus then flows through a network of capillaries. The long and winding course of both the renal tubule and the surrounding capillaries provides a large surface area for the exchange of materials.
As the filtrate flows through a nephron, its composition is modified by the exchange of materials among the renal tubule, the capillaries, and the extracellular fluid. Various types of exchanges take place in the different parts of the renal tubule. To understand how the structure of each part of the nephron is related to its function, we will examine the three major processes that take place in the nephron: filtration, reabsorption, and secretion. Figure 48-16 shows the site of each of these processes in the nephron.
Word Roots and Origins glomerulus from the Latin glom, meaning "little ball of yarn"
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