Aerobic organisms maintain O2 homeostasis by responding to changes in O2 supply and demand in both short and long time domains. In this review, we introduce several specific examples of respiratory plasticity induced by chronic changes in O2 supply (environmental hypoxia or hyperoxia) and demand (exercise-induced and temperature-induced changes in aerobic metabolism). These studies reveal that plasticity occurs throughout the respiratory system, including modifications to the gas exchanger, respiratory pigments, respiratory muscles, and the neural control systems responsible for ventilating the gas exchanger. While some of these responses appear appropriate (e.g., increases in lung surface area, blood O2 capacity, and pulmonary ventilation in hypoxia), other responses are potentially harmful (e.g., increased muscle fatigability). Thus, it may be difficult to predict whole-animal performance based on the plasticity of a single system. Moreover, plastic responses may differ quantitatively and qualitatively at different developmental stages. Much of the current research in this field is focused on identifying the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying respiratory plasticity. These studies suggest that a few key molecules, such as hypoxia inducible factor (HIF) and erythropoietin, may be involved in the expression of diverse forms of plasticity within and across species. Studying the various ways in which animals respond to respiratory challenges will enable a better understanding of the integrative response to chronic changes in O2 supply and demand.
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