The Mucous Membranes

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A spongy-looking surface with tufts of long hairs. Each hair is about 5 µm long; each tuft is about 10 µm in diameter.
This scanning electron micrograph shows ciliated and nonciliated epithelial cells from the human trachea. The mucociliary escalator pushes mucus away from the lungs, along with any debris or microorganisms that may be trapped in the sticky mucus, and the mucus moves up to the esophagus where it can be removed by swallowing.

OpenStax Microbiology

The mucous membranes lining the nose, mouth, lungs, and urinary and digestive tracts provide another nonspecific barrier against potential pathogens. Mucous membranes consist of a layer of epithelial cells bound by tight junctions. The epithelial cells secrete a moist, sticky substance called mucus, which covers and protects the more fragile cell layers beneath it and traps debris and particulate matter, including microbes. Mucus secretions also contain antimicrobial peptides.

In many regions of the body, mechanical actions serve to flush mucus (along with trapped or dead microbes) out of the body or away from potential sites of infection. For example, in the respiratory system, inhalation can bring microbes, dust, mold spores, and other small airborne debris into the body. This debris becomes trapped in the mucus lining the respiratory tract, a layer known as the mucociliary blanket. The epithelial cells lining the upper parts of the respiratory tract are called ciliated epithelial cells because they have hair-like appendages known as cilia. Movement of the cilia propels debris-laden mucus out and away from the lungs. The expelled mucus is then swallowed and destroyed in the stomach, or coughed up, or sneezed out. This system of removal is often called the mucociliary escalator.

The mucociliary escalator is such an effective barrier to microbes that the lungs, the lowermost (and most sensitive) portion of the respiratory tract, were long considered to be a sterile environment in healthy individuals. Only recently has research suggested that healthy lungs may have a small normal microbiota. Disruption of the mucociliary escalator by the damaging effects of smoking or diseases such as cystic fibrosis can lead to increased colonization of bacteria in the lower respiratory tract and frequent infections, which highlights the importance of this physical barrier to host defenses.

Like the respiratory tract, the digestive tract is a portal of entry through which microbes enter the body, and the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract provide a nonspecific physical barrier against ingested microbes. The intestinal tract is lined with epithelial cells, interspersed with mucus-secreting goblet cells. This mucus mixes with material received from the stomach, trapping foodborne microbes and debris. The mechanical action of peristalsis, a series of muscular contractions in the digestive tract, moves the sloughed mucus and other material through the intestines, rectum, and anus, excreting the material in feces.

Figure a is a diagram of a single goblet cell. Cell is tall and slightly hour-glass shaped. The bottom of the cell is filled with a nucleus. The top shows the Golgi apparatus (folds of membranes), rough endoplasmic reticulum (folds of membranes with dots), secretory vesicles containing mucin (large bubbles), and microvilli (finger-like projections at the top). Figure b is a micrograph of two goblet cells within a row of epithelial cells. The epithelial cells are rectangular with a large nucleus visible. The goblet cells are thinner and have a clear (uncolored) top.
Goblet cells produce and secrete mucus. The arrows in this micrograph point to the mucus-secreting goblet cells (magnification 1600⨯) in the intestinal epithelium. (credit micrograph: Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:



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