Lecture - Respiratory Development

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Upper respiratory tract
Lower respiratory tract
Respiratory tree

Current research suggests that both genetic and the developmental environment (fetal and postnatal) can influence the growth, differentiation and function of the respiratory system.

The respiratory system does not carry out its physiological function (of gas exchange) until after birth and is filled with liquid and not air until then. Note that most of the respiratory system consists of the conductive "pipes", with the actual functional exchange unit (the alveolus, plural alveoli) forming at the very end of this plumbing right at the end of development.

The respiratory tract is divided anatomically into 2 main parts:

  1. upper respiratory tract - consisting of the nose, nasal cavity and the pharynx.
  2. lower respiratory tract - consisting of the larynx, trachea, bronchi and the alveoli (respiratory functional unit).

The respiratory "system" usually includes descriptions of not only the functional development of the lungs, but also related musculoskeletal (diaphragm), vascular (pulmonary) and coelomic (pleural cavity) development.

Lecture - Print PDF

2014 Lecture Recording

Due to illness on Wednesday I was unable to give this lecture. The 2015 ECHO360 recording will therefore be available but will not contain any content. I have therefore added a link to the 2014 lecture video recording below. This will not be identical to the current online lecture, but should cover similar content.

Click this link to view video alone in browser window - 2014 Respiratory Development Lecture (60 Mb)

View video in this current browser window

Lecture Objectives

Respiratory tract (Week 5)
  • Understanding of embryonic lung development
  • Understanding of the stages of lung development
  • Understanding of diaphragm development
  • Brief understanding of respiratory vascular development
  • Brief understanding of respiratory abnormalities
  • Brief understanding of molecular mechanisms

Lecture Resources

Page | Play

Week 4-5 Stage 13

Page | Play

Week 8 Stage 22

UNSW Embryology logo
Hill, M.A. (2015). UNSW Embryology (15th ed.) Retrieved October 6, 2015, from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au
Respiratory Links: Introduction | Science Lecture | Med Lecture | Stage 13 | Stage 22 | Upper Respiratory Tract | Diaphragm | Histology | Postnatal | Abnormalities | Respiratory Quiz | Category:Respiratory
Historic Embryology
1902 The Nasal Cavities and Olfactory Structures | 1912 Upper Respiratory Tract | 1912 Respiratory | 1918 Respiratory images | 1921 Respiratory | 1922 Chick Pulmonary Vessels
Textbook cover The Developing Human, 9th edn.
Moore, K.L., Persaud, T.V.N. & Torchia, M.G. (2011). The developing human: clinically oriented embryology (9th ed.). Philadelphia: Saunders.
The following chapter links only work with a UNSW connection.
  1. Body Cavities and Diaphragm
  2. Pharyngeal Apparatus, Face, and Neck
  3. Respiratory System
Textbook cover Larsen's human embryology 4th edn.
Schoenwolf, G.C., Bleyl, S.B., Brauer, P.R. & Francis-West, P.H. (2009). Larsen's human embryology (4th ed.). New York; Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
The following chapter links only work with a UNSW connection.
  • Chapter 11 - Development of the Respiratory System and Body Cavities
Other Online Respiratory Resources
ECHO360 Recording
ECHO360 icon.gif

Links only work with currently enrolled UNSW students.

Respiratory Functional Unit


Alveolus (Latin alveolus = "little cavity", plural is alveoli)

Respiratory histology 03.jpg Alveolar-sac-01.jpg
Alveolus histology Alveolus structure
Lung primary lobule 01.jpg Lung secondary lobule 01.jpg
Primary Lobule
  • region supplied by a respiratory bronchiole
Secondary Lobule
  • region supplied by a terminal bronchiole
  • size - up to 2.5 cm across.
  • connective tissue - bounded by fibrous (interlobular) septa and containing internal (interlobular) septa.
  • lobule contains a up to 12 acini and 30 - 50 primary lobules.
  • blood supply - pulmonary artery branch
  • blood drainage - pulmonary veins located at lobule periphery leave though the interlobular septa.
  • lymphatics - arterial and interlobular septa associated (drain to subpleural plexus).

Developmental Overview

Lung alveoli development cartoon.jpg

Germ Layers

  • Endoderm and splanchnic mesoderm form majority of conducting and alveoli.
  • Ectoderm will contribute the neural innervation.
  • Mesoderm also contributes the supporting musculoskeletal components.

Week 4 - laryngotracheal groove forms on floor foregut.

Week 5 - left and right lung buds push into the pericardioperitoneal canals (primordia of pleural cavity)

Week 6 - descent of heart and lungs into thorax. Pleuroperitoneal foramen closes.

Week 7 - enlargement of liver stops descent of heart and lungs.

Month 3-6 - lungs appear glandular, end month 6 alveolar cells type 2 appear and begin to secrete surfactant.

Month 7 - respiratory bronchioles proliferate and end in alveolar ducts and sacs.

Development Stages

Note - the sequence is important rather than the actual timing, which is variable in the existing literature.

Human Lung Stages

Stage Human Features
Embryonic week 4 to 5 lung buds originate as an outgrowth from the ventral wall of the foregut where lobar division occurs
Pseudoglandular week 5 to 17 conducting epithelial tubes surrounded by thick mesenchyme are formed, extensive airway branching
Canalicular week 16 to 25 bronchioles are produced, increasing number of capillaries in close contact with cuboidal epithelium and the beginning of alveolar epithelium development
Saccular week 24 to 40 alveolar ducts and air sacs are developed
Alveolar late fetal to 8 years secondary septation occurs, marked increase of the number and size of capillaries and alveoli


Endoderm development cartoon
Stage11 bf9.jpg Stage11 sem4.jpg
Stomodeum (Week 4, stage 11) Buccopharyngeal membrane (Week 4, stage 11)

Week 5 Respiratory Development

(Week 5, stage 14)

  • week 4 - 5
  • Endoderm - tubular ventral growth from foregut pharynx.
  • Mesoderm - mesenchyme of lung buds.
  • Intraembryonic coelom - pleural cavities elongated spaces connecting pericardial and peritoneal spaces.
Gray0982a.jpg Bailey287.jpg Bailey288.jpg Bailey289.jpg
Week 4 Week 4-5 (Stage 12 to 13) Week 5 (Stage 15 to 16) Week 6 (Stage 16 to 17)

Pseudoglandular stage

  • week 5 - 17
  • tubular branching of the human lung airways continues
  • by 2 months all segmental bronchi are present.
  • lungs have appearance of a glandlike structure.
  • stage is critical for the formation of all conducting airways.
    • lined with tall columnar epithelium
    • more distal structures are lined with cuboidal epithelium.
Fetal lung histology.jpg

Fetal lung histology

Canalicular stage

  • week 16 - 24
  • Lung morphology changes dramatically
  • differentiation of the pulmonary epithelium results in the formation of the future air-blood tissue barrier.
  • Surfactant synthesis and the canalization of the lung parenchyma by capillaries begin.
  • future gas exchange regions can be distinguished from the future conducting airways of the lungs.

Saccular stage

Alveolar sac structure
  • week 24 to near term.
  • most peripheral airways form widened "airspaces", termed saccules.
  • saccules widen and lengthen the airspace (by the addition of new generations).
  • future gas exchange region expands significantly.
  • Fibroblastic cells also undergo differentiation, they produce extracellular matrix, collagen, and elastin.
    • May have a role in epithelial differentiation and control of surfactant secretion.
  • Alveolar Cells Type II (Type II pneumocytes)
    • begin to secrete surfactant, levels of secretion gradually increase to term.
    • allows alveoli to remain inflated
  • Vascular tree - also grows in length and diameter during this time.

Alveolar stage

  • late fetal to 8 years.
  • The postnatal lung, with alveoli forming.
  • Expansion of gas exchange alveoli, vascular beds (capillaries), lymphatics and innervation.
Postnatal alveoli number.jpg

Upper Respiratory Tract

Foregut cartoon

Foregut Development - from the oral cavity the next portion of the foregut is initially a single gastrointestinal (oesophagus) and respiratory (trachea) common tube, the pharynx which lies behind the heart. Note that the respiratory tract will form from a ventral bud arising at this level.

  • part of foregut development (Oral cavity, Pharynx (esophagus, trachea), Respiratory tract, Stomach)
  • anatomically the nose, nasal cavity and the pharynx
  • pharynx forms a major arched cavity within the pharyngeal arches (MH - pharyngeal arches will be described in BGD head development lecture).
  • palate - development for mammals, allows breathing while feeding.
Respiratory histology 11.jpg

Respiratory epithelium

  • pseudo-stratified
  • ciliated cells
  • goblet cells
  • basal cells

Note - Specialised olfactory epithelium for smell, a small region located in roof of nasal cavity.

Additional Information - Histology
This will be covered in detail in your associated SH Practical class.
Olfactory epithelium
  • Olfactory cells
  • Sustentacular cells - located mainly in the superficial cell layer of the epithelium (difficult to distinguish from olfactory cells).
  • Basal cells - identified by their location in the epithelium.


  • Cilia are not visible
  • goblet cells are absent from the olfactory epithelium.

Lamina Propria

  • olfactory axon bundles (lightly stained, rounded areas) connected to olfactory cells.
  • Bowman's glands - (small mucous glands, olfactory glands) function to moisturise the epithelium.
Nasal Olfactory Histology: overview image | detail image | Smell Development | Histology | Histology Stains

Respiratory epithelium
  • goblet cells
  • ciliated cells
  • basal cells

Lamina propria

  • connective tissue
  • cavernous sinusoids - large spaces (empty or filled with red blood cells)
  • glandular tissue - mucous glands (green) and muco-serous glands (brownish-green)


  • Lamellae and osteocytes in lacunae.
  • Haversian systems are rare or absent.
Nasal Respiratory Histology: overview image | detail image | Histology | Histology Stains
Respiratory Histology: Bronchiole | Alveolar Duct | Alveoli | Alveoli Elastin | Trachea 1 | Trachea 2 | labeled lung | unlabeled lung | Respiratory Bronchiole | Lung Reticular Fibres | Nasal Inferior Concha | Nasal Respiratory Epithelium | Olfactory Region overview | Olfactory Region Epithelium | Histology Stains

Lower Respiratory Tract

Lung development stage13-22.jpg Stage 22 image 171.jpg
Stage 13 (Week 4-5) Stage 22 (Week 8)
Lung alveoli development cartoon
  • lung buds ( endoderm epithelial tubes) grow/push into mesenchyme covered with pleural cells (lung border)
  • generates a tree-like network by repeated:
  1. elongation
  2. terminal bifurcation
  3. lateral budding

Growth initially of branched "conducting" system of bronchial tree, followed by later development of the "functional units" of the alveoli.

Additional Information - Histology
This will be covered in detail in your associated SH Practical class.

Respiratory Trachea

Mucosa - formed by epithelium and underlying lamina propria.

  • respiratory epithelium - (pseudostratified columnar and ciliated) ciliated cells, goblet cells, brush cells, endocrine cells, surfactant-producing cells (Clara cells), serous cells, basal cells, basement membrane.
  • lamina propria - loose connective tissue, many elastic fibres

Submucosa - connective tissue and submucosal glands

  • submucosal glands (both serous and mucous parts)


  • perichondrium
  • tracheal cartilage - hyaline cartilage, 16 to 20 C-shaped cartilages.
  • trachealis muscle - (smooth muscle) Not visible in this section, together with connective tissue fibres, join ends of the cartilages together.

Hyaline Cartilage Development

  • forms from mesenchymal cells.
  • precursor cells become rounded and form densely packed cellular masses, chondrification centres.
  • chondroblasts - (cartilage-forming cells) begin secreting the extracellular matrix components of cartilage.
    • extracellular matrix - ground substance (hyaluronan, chondroitin sulfates and keratan sulfate) and tropocollagen (polymerises into fine collagen fibres, not visible).

Bronchi Branching

main bronchi -> lobar bronchi -> segmental bronchi (supply lung bronchopulmonary segments) -> bronchi -> bronchioles (smaller than 1 mm) -> respiratory bronchioles.

  • Trachea branches into 2 main bronchi, with a histological structure similar to that of the trachea.
  • branches are accompanied by branches of the pulmonary artery, nerves and lymph vessels
  • surrounded by a layer of smooth muscle, which is located between the cartilage and epithelium.


  • transition from bronchi to bronchioles the epithelium changes to a ciliated columnar epithelium.
  • Smooth muscle present, glands and cartilage are absent.

Respiratory Bronchioles

  • first structures that belong to the respiratory portion of the respiratory system.
  • wall out-pouchings form alveoli (site of gas exchange)
  • end in alveolar ducts
  • alveoli - duct or sac.
Alveolar type I cells
  • small alveolar cells or type I pneumocytes
  • are extremely flattened (the cell may be as thin as 0.05 µm)
  • form the bulk (95%) of the surface of the alveolar walls.
  • The shape of the cells is very complex, and they may actually form part of the epithelium on both faces of the alveolar wall.
Alveolar type II cells
  • large alveolar cells or type II pneumocytes
  • about as many type II cells as type I cells (cell shape accounts for small contribution to alveolar area).
  • irregularly (sometimes cuboidal) shaped.
  • form small bulges on the alveolar walls.
  • contain are large number of granules called cytosomes (or multilamellar bodies)
    • consist of precursors to pulmonary surfactant (mixture of phospholipids that keep surface tension in the alveoli low).
Respiratory Histology: Bronchiole | Alveolar Duct | Alveoli | Alveoli Elastin | Trachea 1 | Trachea 2 | labeled lung | unlabeled lung | Respiratory Bronchiole | Lung Reticular Fibres | Nasal Inferior Concha | Nasal Respiratory Epithelium | Olfactory Region overview | Olfactory Region Epithelium | Histology Stains

Fetal Lung Volume

Each human lung volume as determined by ultrasound and matched to gestational age [1]

Weeks (gestational) Volume (ml)
12 to 13 0.05
19 to 22 0.5
29 to 32 1.9
Lung volume graph 01.jpg

Pleural Cavity

  • anatomical body cavity in which the lungs develop and lie.
  • pleural cavity forms in the lateral plate mesoderm as part of the early single intraembryonic coelom.
  • This cavity is initially continuous with pericardial and peritoneal cavities and form initially as two narrow canals.
    • later becomes separated by folding (pleuropericardial fold, pleuroperitoneal membrane) and the later formation of the diaphragm.
  • pleuropericardial fold - (pleuropericardial membrane) An early embryonic fold which restricts the communication between pleural cavity and pericardiac cavity, contains both the cardinal vein and phrenic nerve.
  • pleuroperitoneal membrane - An early embryonic membrane that forms inferiorly at the septum transversum to separate peritoneal cavity from pleural cavity.


  • serous membrane covers the surface of the lung and the spaces between the lobes.
  • arranged as a closed invaginated sac.
  • two layers (pulmonary, parietal) continuous with each other, the potential space between them is the pleural cavity.


  • Not respiratory tract but musculoskeletal development, there are 5 embryonic elements that contribute to the diaphragm.
Components of the diaphragm
  1. septum transversum- central tendon
  2. 3rd to 5th somite- musculature of diaphragm
  3. ventral pleural sac- connective tissue
  4. mesentry of oesophagus- connective tissue around oesophasus and IVC
  5. pleuroperitoneal membranes- connective tissue around central tendon
Adult Cervical Plexus (phrenic nerve shown lower right)

adult diaphragm

  • Innervation of the human diaphragm is by the phrenic nerves
    • arising from the same segmental levels from which the diaphragm skeletal muscles arise, segmental levels C3 to C5.
  • The paired phrenic nerves are mixed nerves
    • motor neurons for the diaphragm
    • sensory nerves for other abdominal structures (mediastinum, pleura, liver, gall bladder).

Pulmonary Circulation

Pulmonary circulation
  • the pulmonary system not "functional" until after birth
  • pulmonary arteries - 6th aortic arch arteries
  • pulmonary veins - are incorporated into the left atrium wall
  • bronchial arteries - branches from dorsal aorta


Fetal Respiratory Movements

  • Fetal respiratory movements (FRM) or Fetal breathing movements (FBM) are regular muscular contrations occurring in the third trimester.
  • preparing the respiratory muscular system for neonatal function.
  • may also have a role in late lung development.

The First Breath

Alveolar sac structure
  • The respiratory system does not carry out its physiological function (gas exchange) prenatally and remain entirely fluid-filled until birth.
  • At birth, fluid in the upper respiratory tract is expired and fluid in the lung aveoli is rapidly absorbed this event has also been called "dewatering of the lung".
    • The lung epithelia has to now rapidly change from its prenatal secretory function to that of fluid absorbtion.

The exchange of lung fluid for air leads to:

  • fall in pulmonary vascular resistance
  • increase in pulmonary blood flow
  • thinning of pulmonary arteries (stretching as lungs increase in size)
  • blood fills the alveolar capillaries

In the heart - pressure in the right side of the heart decreases and pressure in the left side of the heart increases (more blood returning from pulmonary).


Postnatal alveoli number
Rib orientation


  • At birth about 15% of adult alveoli number have formed
    • 20 - 50 million to in the adult about 300 million.
  • remaining subdivisions develop in the first few postnatal years

Alveoli Number

Respiratory Rate

  • neonatal rate is higher (30-60 breaths/minute) than adult (12-20 breaths/minute).
    • tachypnea - (Greek, rapid breathing) an increased respiratory rate of greater than 60 breaths/minute in a quiet resting baby
Age Rate (breaths/minute)
Infant (birth - 1 year) 30 - 60
Toddler (1 - 3 years) 24 - 40
Preschool (3 - 6 years) 22 - 34
School age (6 - 12 years) 18 - 30
Adolescent (12 - 18 years) 12 - 16

Rib Orientation

  • Infant rib - is virtually horizontal, allowing diaphragmatic breathing only.
  • Adult rib - is oblique (both anterior and lateral views), allows for pump-handle and bucket handle types of inspiration.

Respiratory Tract Abnormalities

Congenital diaphragmatic hernia
Lung Azygos Lobe
Preterm Birth

Respiratory System - Abnormalities

  • Meconium Aspiration Syndrome - (MAS) Meconium is the gastrointestinal contents that accumulate in the intestines during the fetal period. Fetal stress in the third trimester, prior to/at/ or during parturition can lead to premature meconium discharge into the amniotic fluid and sunsequent ingestion by the fetus and damage to respiratory function. Damage to placental vessels meconium myonecrosis may also occur.
  • Newborn Respiratory Distress Syndrome - (Hyaline Membrane Disease) membrane-like substance from damaged pulmonary cells, absence of surfactant, if prolonged can be irreversible, intrauterine asphyxia, prematurity and maternal diabetes medline plus | eMedicine
  • Tracheoesophageal Fistula - Tracheo-Oesophageal Fistula, Oesophageal Atresia - Oesophageal Atresia with or without tracheo-oesophageal fistula Fistula - an abnormal communication between 2 structures (organs, vessels, cavities) that do not normally connect.
  • Lobar Emphysema (Overinflated Lung) - There is an overinflated left upper lobe There is a collapsed lower lobe The left lung is herniating across the mediastinum
  • Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia - (1 in 3,000 live births) Failure of the pleuroperitoneal foramen (foramen of Bochdalek) to close (left side), allows viscera into thorax -iIntestine, stomach or spleen can enter the pleural cavity, compressing the lung. rare (Morgagni hernia) -an opening in the front of the diaphragm. Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia | GeneReviews
  • Azygos Lobe - Common condition (0.5% of population). The right lung upper lobe expands either side of the posterior cardinal. There is also some course variability of the phrenic nerve in the presence of an azygos lobe.
  • Congenital Laryngeal Webs - Laryngeal abnormality due to embryonic (week 10) incomplete recanalization of the laryngotracheal tube during the fetal period. Rare abnormality occuring mainly at the level of the vocal folds (glottis).
  • Hyaline Membrane Disease - (Newborn Respiratory Distress Syndrome) a membrane-like substance from damaged pulmonary cells.
  • Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia - A chronic lung disease which can occur following premature birth and related lung injury. Most infants who develop BPD are born more than 10 weeks before their due dates, weigh less than 1,000 grams (about 2 pounds) at birth, and have breathing problems.
  • Asthma - Flow limitation during tidal expiration in early life significantly associated with the development of physician-diagnosed asthma by the age of 2 years. Infants with abnormal lung function soon after birth may have a genetic predisposition to asthma or other airway abnormalities that predict the risk of subsequent lower respiratory tract illness. PMID 8176553
  • Cystic Fibrosis - Inherited disease of the mucus and sweat glands, causes mucus to be thick and sticky. Clogging the lungs, causing breathing problems and encouraging bacterial grow. (Covered elsewhere in the course)
  • Environmental Factors see recent review below.

Mark D Miller, Melanie A Marty Impact of environmental chemicals on lung development. Environ. Health Perspect.: 2010, 118(8);1155-64 PubMed 20444669

Additional Information

Respiratory Quiz

adult lungs
Grays - Respiratory Images
Respiratory Histology

Histology will be covered in more detail in your associated practical class.

Fetal Histology

Fetal Respiratory: late canalicular | unlabeled late canalicular | Hyaline cartilage | Respiratory Histology

Adult Histology

Respiratory Histology: Bronchiole | Alveolar Duct | Alveoli | Alveoli Elastin | Trachea 1 | Trachea 2 | labeled lung | unlabeled lung | Respiratory Bronchiole | Lung Reticular Fibres | Nasal Inferior Concha | Nasal Respiratory Epithelium | Olfactory Region overview | Olfactory Region Epithelium | Histology Stains

  1. C F A Peralta, P Cavoretto, B Csapo, O Falcon, K H Nicolaides Lung and heart volumes by three-dimensional ultrasound in normal fetuses at 12-32 weeks' gestation. Ultrasound Obstet Gynecol: 2006, 27(2);128-33 PubMed 16388511

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Cite this page: Hill, M.A. (2015) Embryology Lecture - Respiratory Development. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Lecture_-_Respiratory_Development

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© Dr Mark Hill 2015, UNSW Embryology ISBN: 978 0 7334 2609 4 - UNSW CRICOS Provider Code No. 00098G