Textbooks commonly state that red blood cells are removed by the liver and spleen. Do those organs destroy the red blood cells within capillaries that course through those organs or are they transported into the liver/spleen cells to be broken down into their constituents? What causes them to be destroyed/removed from the circulation?


RBC's lifespan is about 120 days. RBC's don't have a nucleus or endoplasmic reticulum, but they do have enzymes in the cytoplasm, capable of producing ATP from glucose. This energy is used mostly to maintain the structure and flexibility of the cell. The erythrocyte is a biconcave disc, that is ~7 micrometers in diameter, but the cell is pliable and it should be able to squeeze trough narrow spaces without breaking the cell membrane. Over time these metabolic systems become less effective and damaged, and the cell slowly becomes more fragile and prone to rupture. Spleen has special trabeculae (bands of connective tissue) in its red pulp, that the blood passes trough. The spaces between them are narrow and "old" RBC's tend to rupture while trying to squeeze trough. Then macrophages "catch" any cell fragments down the stream. This can happen anywhere in the body, but spleen and liver are kind of filters for blood contents.

  • $\begingroup$ References Guytons physiology textbook Ross histology textbook $\endgroup$ – Janis Berzins Jul 29 '16 at 22:10

To take the easiest bit first: Red blood cells are destroyed because lacking a nucleus, they aren't quite as powerful as other cells when it comes to self-repair and longevity.

As for where; it really is all over the body. They are swallowed up (literally) by macrophages lining the blood vessels, which are particularly concentrated in the liver, spleen and bone marrow, but present everywhere.

As they age, they deform, and the macrophages are capable of recognising this deformation and reacting to it (by eating the red blood cells).

When the macrophages have eaten and destroyed the red blood cells, the nutrients they contain are returned to the blood plasma, and captured in the bone marrow for production of new blood cells.

(This pattern is common in a lot of systems, by the way: Even though the liver is the primary organ to break down toxins, for instance, most cells in the body has some limited capability for doing so; this is true of many functions.)



Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.