The origin and evolution of the surfactant system in fish: insights into the evolution of lungs and swim bladders

Physiol Biochem Zool. Sep-Oct 2004;77(5):732-49. doi: 10.1086/422058.


Several times throughout their radiation fish have evolved either lungs or swim bladders as gas-holding structures. Lungs and swim bladders have different ontogenetic origins and can be used either for buoyancy or as an accessory respiratory organ. Therefore, the presence of air-filled bladders or lungs in different groups of fishes is an example of convergent evolution. We propose that air breathing could not occur without the presence of a surfactant system and suggest that this system may have originated in epithelial cells lining the pharynx. Here we present new data on the surfactant system in swim bladders of three teleost fish (the air-breathing pirarucu Arapaima gigas and tarpon Megalops cyprinoides and the non-air-breathing New Zealand snapper Pagrus auratus). We determined the presence of surfactant using biochemical, biophysical, and morphological analyses and determined homology using immunohistochemical analysis of the surfactant proteins (SPs). We relate the presence and structure of the surfactant system to those previously described in the swim bladders of another teleost, the goldfish, and those of the air-breathing organs of the other members of the Osteichthyes, the more primitive air-breathing Actinopterygii and the Sarcopterygii. Snapper and tarpon swim bladders are lined with squamous and cuboidal epithelial cells, respectively, containing membrane-bound lamellar bodies. Phosphatidylcholine dominates the phospholipid (PL) profile of lavage material from all fish analyzed to date. The presence of the characteristic surfactant lipids in pirarucu and tarpon, lamellar bodies in tarpon and snapper, SP-B in tarpon and pirarucu lavage, and SPs (A, B, and D) in swim bladder tissue of the tarpon provide strong evidence that the surfactant system of teleosts is homologous with that of other fish and of tetrapods. This study is the first demonstration of the presence of SP-D in the air-breathing organs of nonmammalian species and SP-B in actinopterygian fishes. The extremely high cholesterol/disaturated PL and cholesterol/PL ratios of surfactant extracted from tarpon and pirarucu bladders and the poor surface activity of tarpon surfactant are characteristics of the surfactant system in other fishes. Despite the paraphyletic phylogeny of the Osteichthyes, their surfactant is uniform in composition and may represent the vertebrate protosurfactant.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Air Sacs / metabolism*
  • Air Sacs / ultrastructure
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Fishes / anatomy & histology
  • Fishes / metabolism*
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Lung / anatomy & histology
  • Lung / metabolism
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Phosphatidylcholines / metabolism
  • Pulmonary Surfactants / metabolism*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / metabolism*
  • Species Specificity


  • Phosphatidylcholines
  • Pulmonary Surfactants