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22.3: Microscopic Anatomy of the Kidney

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  • By the end of the section, you will be able to:

    • Describe the structure of the filtration membrane
    • Identify the major structures and subdivisions of the renal corpuscles and renal tubules
    • Identify the location of the juxtaglomerular apparatus and describe the cells that line it
    • Describe the histology of the proximal convoluted tubule, loop of Henle, distal convoluted tubule, and collecting ducts

    The renal structures that conduct the essential work of the kidney cannot be seen by the naked eye. Only a light or electron microscope can reveal these structures. Even then, serial sections and computer reconstruction are necessary to give us a comprehensive view of the functional anatomy of the nephron and its associated blood vessels.

    Nephrons: The Functional Unit

    Nephrons take a simple filtrate of the blood and modify it into urine. Many changes take place in the different parts of the nephron before urine is created for disposal. The term forming urine will be used hereafter to describe the filtrate as it is modified into true urine. The principle task of the nephron population is to balance the plasma to homeostatic set points and excrete potential toxins in the urine. They do this by accomplishing three principle functions—filtration, reabsorption, and secretion. They also have additional secondary functions that exert control in three areas: blood pressure (via production of renin), red blood cell production (via the hormone EPO), and calcium absorption (via conversion of calcidiol into calcitriol, the active form of vitamin D).

    Renal Corpuscle

    As discussed earlier, the renal corpuscle consists of a tuft of capillaries called the glomerulus that is largely surrounded by Bowman’s (glomerular) capsule. The glomerulus is a high-pressure capillary bed between afferent and efferent arterioles. Bowman’s capsule surrounds the glomerulus to form a lumen, and captures and directs this filtrate to the PCT. The outermost part of Bowman’s capsule, the parietal layer, is a simple squamous epithelium. It transitions onto the glomerular capillaries in an intimate embrace to form the visceral layer of the capsule. Here, the cells are not squamous, but uniquely shaped cells (podocytes) extending finger-like arms (pedicels) to cover the glomerular capillaries (Figure 22.3.1 and 22.3.2). These projections interdigitate to form filtration slits, leaving small gaps between the digits to form a sieve. As blood passes through the glomerulus, 10 to 20 percent of the plasma filters between these sieve-like fingers to be captured by Bowman’s capsule and funneled to the PCT. Where the fenestrae (windows) in the glomerular capillaries match the spaces between the podocyte “fingers,” the only thing separating the capillary lumen and the lumen of Bowman’s capsule is their shared basement membrane (Figure 22.3.3). These three features, fenestrated endothelium, basement membrane, and pedicels comprise what is known as the filtration membrane. This membrane permits very rapid movement of filtrate from capillary to capsule though pores that are only 70 nm in diameter.

    Electron micrograph of glomerulum of mouse kidney showing a round ball of curly tubes.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Glomerulum. Glomerulus of mouse kidney in Scanning Electron Microscope, magnification 1,000x. (Image credit: “Glomerulus” by SecretDisc is licensed under CC BY 3.0)

    Electron micrograph showing a cross section of a capillary in a glomerulus.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Glomerulum, Cross-Section. Glomerulus of mouse kidney with broken capillary in Scanning Electron Microscope, magnification 10,000x. (Image credit: “Broken Capillary Glomerulum" by SecretDisc is licensed under CC BY 3.0)
    Drawing of capillary wall showing endothelium with small holes and basement membrane.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Fenestrated Capillary. Fenestrations allow many substances to diffuse from the blood based primarily on size. (Image credit: “Fenestrated Capillary” by OpenStax is licensed under CC BY 3.0).

    The fenestrations prevent filtration of blood cells or large proteins, but allow most other constituents through. These substances cross readily if they are less than 4 nm in size and most pass freely up to 8 nm in size. An additional factor affecting the ability of substances to cross this barrier is their electric charge. The proteins associated with these pores are negatively charged, so they tend to repel negatively charged substances and allow positively charged substances to pass more readily. The basement membrane prevents filtration of medium-to-large proteins such as globulins. There are also mesangial cells in the filtration membrane that can contract to help regulate the rate of filtration of the glomerulus. Overall, filtration is regulated by fenestrations in capillary endothelial cells, podocytes with filtration slits, membrane charge, and the basement membrane between capillary cells. The result is the creation of a filtrate that does not contain cells or large proteins, and has a slight predominance of positively charged substances.

    Lying just outside Bowman’s capsule and the glomerulus is the juxtaglomerular apparatus (JGA). At the juncture where the afferent and efferent arterioles enter and leave Bowman’s capsule, the initial part of the distal convoluted tubule (DCT) comes into direct contact with the arterioles. The wall of the DCT at that point forms a part of the JGA known as the macula densa. This cluster of cuboidal epithelial cells monitors the fluid composition of fluid flowing through the DCT (Figure 22.3.4).

    A, drawing of renal corpuscle and surrounding structures; B, renal histology photo.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\):: Juxtaglomerular Apparatus and Glomerulus. (a) The JGA allows specialized cells to monitor the composition of the fluid in the DCT and adjust the glomerular filtration rate. (b) This micrograph shows the glomerulus and surrounding structures. LM × 1540; Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012. (Image credit: “Juxtaglomerular Apparatus and Glomerulus” by OpenStax is licensed under CC BY 3.0)

    A second cell type in this apparatus is the juxtaglomerular cell. This is a modified, smooth muscle cell lining the afferent arteriole that can contract or relax in response to ATP or adenosine released by the macula densa. Such contraction and relaxation regulate blood flow to the glomerulus. A second function of the macula densa cells is to regulate renin release from the juxtaglomerular cells of the afferent arteriole. Renin, other proteins, such as angiotensin I and angiotensin II, and hormones, such as antidiuretic hormone (ADH) and aldosterone, regulate blood pressure by adjusting the amount of water retained by the kidneys.

    Proximal Convoluted Tubule (PCT)

    Filtered fluid collected by Bowman’s capsule enters into the PCT. It is called convoluted due to its tortuous path. Simple cuboidal cells form this tubule with prominent microvilli on the luminal surface, forming a brush border. These microvilli create a large surface area to maximize the absorption and secretion of solutes (Na+, Cl, glucose, etc.), the most essential function of this portion of the nephron. These cells actively transport ions across their membranes, so they possess a high concentration of mitochondria in order to produce sufficient ATP.

    Loop of Henle

    The descending and ascending portions of the loop of Henle (sometimes referred to as the nephron loop) are, of course, just continuations of the same tubule. They run adjacent and parallel to each other after having made a hairpin turn at the deepest point of their descent. The descending loop of Henle consists of an initial short, thick portion and long, thin portion, whereas the ascending loop consists of an initial short, thin portion followed by a long, thick portion. The descending thick portion consists of simple cuboidal epithelium similar to that of the PCT. The descending and ascending thin portions consists of simple squamous epithelium. These are important differences, since different portions of the loop have different permeabilities for solutes and water. The ascending thick portion consists of simple cuboidal epithelium similar to the DCT.

    Distal Convoluted Tubule (DCT)

    The DCT, like the PCT, is very tortuous and formed by simple cuboidal epithelium, but it is shorter than the PCT. These cells are not as active as those in the PCT; thus, there are fewer microvilli on the apical surface. However, these cells must also pump ions against their concentration gradient, so you will find of large numbers of mitochondria, although fewer than in the PCT.

    Collecting Ducts

    The collecting ducts are continuous with the nephron but not technically part of it. In fact, each duct collects filtrate from several nephrons for final modification. Collecting ducts merge as they descend deeper in the medulla to form about 30 terminal ducts, which empty at a papilla. They are lined with simple squamous epithelium with receptors for ADH. When stimulated by ADH, these cells will insert aquaporin channel proteins into their membranes, which as their name suggests, allow water to pass from the duct lumen through the cells and into the interstitial spaces to be recovered by the vasa recta (Figure 22.3.5). This process allows for the recovery of large amounts of water from the filtrate back into the blood. In the absence of ADH, these channels are not inserted, resulting in the excretion of water in the form of dilute urine. Most, if not all, cells of the body contain aquaporin molecules, whose channels are so small that only water can pass. At least 10 types of aquaporins are known in humans, and six of those are found in the kidney. The function of all aquaporins is to allow the movement of water across the lipid-rich, hydrophobic cell membrane. Figure 22.3.5 is a drawing of one aquaporin, water channel, as a large protein inserted in the phospholipid bilayer cell membrane and multiple water molecules passing through the channel.

    Drawing of protein serving as a water channel embedded in the cell membrane.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\):: Aquaporin Water Channel. Positive charges inside the channel prevent the leakage of electrolytes across the cell membrane, while allowing water to move due to osmosis. (Image credit: “Aquaporin Water Channel” by OpenStax is licensed under CC BY 3.0).

    Concept Review

    The functional unit of the kidney, the nephron, consists of the renal corpuscle, PCT, loop of Henle, and DCT. The glomerulus is a capillary bed that filters blood principally based on particle size. The filtrate is captured by Bowman’s capsule and directed to the PCT. A filtration membrane is formed by the fused basement membranes of the podocytes and the capillary endothelial cells that they embrace. Contractile mesangial cells further perform a role in regulating the rate at which the blood is filtered. Specialized cells in the JGA produce paracrine signals to regulate blood flow and filtration rates of the glomerulus. Other JGA cells produce the enzyme renin, which plays a central role in blood pressure regulation. The filtrate enters the PCT where absorption and secretion of several substances occur. The descending and ascending limbs of the loop of Henle consist of thick and thin segments. Absorption and secretion continue in the DCT but to a lesser extent than in the PCT. Each collecting duct collects forming urine from several nephrons and responds to the posterior pituitary hormone ADH by inserting aquaporin water channels into the cell membrane to fine tune water recovery.

    Review Questions

    Q. Blood filtrate is captured in the lumen of the ________.

    A. glomerulus

    B. Bowman’s capsule

    C. calyces

    D. renal papillae


    Answer: B

    Q. Which is least associated with the renal corpuscle?

    A. podocyte

    B. fenestration

    C. cuboidal epithelium

    D. pedicels


    Answer: C

    Q. Which is least associated with the juxtaglomerular apparatus?

    A. afferent arteriole

    B. distal convoluted tubule

    C. proximal convoluted tubule

    D. macula densa


    Answer: C

    Critical Thinking Questions

    Q. Why is it abnormal to have blood in urine if the woman is not menstruating?


    A. Red blood cells are too big to pass through the fenestrations from the glomerulus into the Bowman’s capsule.

    Q. What are the major structures comprising the filtration membrane?


    A. The major structures comprising the filtration membrane are fenestrations and podocyte fenestra, fused basement membrane, and filtration slits.


    angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE)
    enzyme produced by the lungs that catalyzes the reaction of inactive angiotensin I into active angiotensin II
    angiotensin I
    protein produced by the enzymatic action of renin on angiotensinogen; inactive precursor of angiotensin II
    angiotensin II
    protein produced by the enzymatic action of ACE on inactive angiotensin I; actively causes vasoconstriction and stimulates aldosterone release by the adrenal cortex
    inactive protein in the circulation produced by the liver; precursor of angiotensin I; must be modified by the enzymes renin and ACE to be activated
    protein-forming water channels through the lipid bilayer of the cell; allows water to cross; activation in the collecting ducts is under the control of ADH
    brush border
    formed by microvilli on the surface of certain cuboidal cells; in the kidney it is found in the PCT; increases surface area for absorption in the kidney
    small windows through a cell, allowing rapid filtration based on size; formed in such a way as to allow substances to cross through a cell without mixing with cell contents
    filtration slits
    formed by pedicels of podocytes; substances filter between the pedicels based on size
    forming urine
    filtrate undergoing modifications through secretion and reabsorption before true urine is produced
    juxtaglomerular apparatus (JGA)
    located at the juncture of the DCT and the afferent and efferent arterioles of the glomerulus; plays a role in the regulation of renal blood flow and GFR
    juxtaglomerular cell
    modified smooth muscle cells of the afferent arteriole; secretes renin in response to a drop in blood pressure
    macula densa
    cells found in the part of the DCT forming the JGA; sense Na+ concentration in the forming urine
    contractile cells found in the glomerulus; can contract or relax to regulate filtration rate
    finger-like projections of podocytes surrounding glomerular capillaries; interdigitate to form a filtration membrane
    cells forming finger-like processes; form the visceral layer of Bowman’s capsule; pedicels of the podocytes interdigitate to form a filtration membrane
    enzyme produced by juxtaglomerular cells in response to decreased blood pressure or sympathetic nervous activity; catalyzes the conversion of angiotensinogen into angiotensin I

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