Pulmonary surfactant is a surface-active lipoprotein complex (phospholipoprotein) formed by type II alveolar cells. The proteins and lipids that comprise the surfactant have both a hydrophilic region and a hydrophobic region. By adsorbing to the air-water interface of alveoli with the hydrophilic head groups in the water and the hydrophobic tails facing towards the air, the main lipid component of surfactant, dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine (DPPC), reduces surface tension.
To increase pulmonary compliance.
To prevent atelectasis (collapse of the lung) at the end of expiration.
To facilitate recruitment of collapsed airways.
Alveoli can be compared to gas in water, as the alveoli are wet and surround a central air space. The surface tension acts at the air-water interface and tends to make the bubble smaller (by decreasing the surface area of the interface). The gas pressure (P) needed to keep equilibrium between the collapsing force of surface tension (γ) and the expanding force of gas in an alveolus of radius r is expressed by the law of Laplace:
Compliance is the ability of lungs and thorax to expand. Lung compliance is defined as the volume change per unit of pressure change across the lung. Measurements of lung volume obtained during the controlled inflation/deflation of a normal lung show that the volumes obtained during deflation exceed those during inflation, at a given pressure. This difference in inflation and deflation volumes at a given pressure is called hysteresis and is due to the air-water surface tension that occurs at the beginning of inflation. However, surfactant decreases the alveolar surface tension, as seen in cases of premature infants suffering from infant respiratory distress syndrome. The normal surface tension for water is 70 dyn/cm (70 mN/m) and in the lungs it is 25 dyn/cm (25 mN/m); however, at the end of the expiration, compressed surfactant phospholipid molecules decrease the surface tension to very low, near-zero levels. Pulmonary surfactant thus greatly reduces surface tension, increasing compliance allowing the lung to inflate much more easily, thereby eliminating the work of breathing. It reduces the pressure difference needed to allow the lung to inflate.