Functional Morphology of the Gastrointestinal Tract

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Abstract

The primary function of the gastrointestinal tract is water, electrolyte, and nutrient transport. To perform this function, the epithelium lining the gastrointestinal tract is in close contact with the gastrointestinal lumen. Because the lumen is connected to the external environment and, depending on the site, has a high bacterial and antigen load, the epithelium must also prevent pathogenic agents within the gastrointestinal lumen from gaining access to internal tissues. This creates a unique challenge for the gastrointestinal tract to balance the requirements of forming a barrier to separate the intestinal lumen from underlying tissue while simultaneously setting up a system for moving water, electrolytes, and nutrients across the barrier. In the face of this, the epithelial cells of the gastrointestinal tract form a selectively permeable barrier that is tightly regulated. In addition, the intestinal mucosa actively participates in host defense by engaging the mucosal immune system. Complex tissue organization and diverse cellular composition are necessary to achieve such a broad range of functions. In this chapter, the structure and function of the gastrointestinal tract and their relevance to infectious diseases are discussed.