Leif Østergaard

August Krogh's theory of muscle microvascular control and oxygen delivery: a paradigm shift based on new data

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperReviewResearchpeer-review


  • David C. Poole, Kansas State University
  • ,
  • Roland N. Pittman, Virginia Commonwealth University
  • ,
  • Timothy I. Musch, Kansas State University
  • ,
  • Leif Østergaard

August Krogh twice won the prestigious international Steegen Prize, for nitrogen metabolism (1906) and overturning the concept of active transport of gases across the pulmonary epithelium (1910). Despite this, at the beginning of 1920, the consummate experimentalist was relatively unknown worldwide and even among his own University of Copenhagen faculty. But, in early 1919, he had submitted three papers to Dr Langley, then editor of The Journal of Physiology in England. These papers coalesced anatomical observations of skeletal muscle capillary numbers with O2 diffusion theory to propose a novel active role for capillaries that explained the prodigious increase in blood-muscle O2 flux from rest to exercise. Despite his own appraisal of the first two papers as “rather dull” to his friend, the eminent Cambridge respiratory physiologist, Joseph Barcroft, Krogh believed that the third one, dealing with O2 supply and capillary regulation, was“interesting”. These papers, which won Krogh an unopposed Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1920, form the foundation for this review. They single-handedly transformed the role of capillaries from passive conduit and exchange vessels, functioning at the mercy of their upstream arterioles, into independent contractile units that were predominantly closed at rest and opened actively during muscle contractions in a process he termed ‘capillary recruitment’. Herein we examine Krogh's findings and some of the experimental difficulties he faced. In particular, the boundary conditions selected for his model (e.g. heavily anaesthetized animals, negligible intramyocyte O2 partial pressure, binary open-closed capillary function) have not withstood the test of time. Subsequently, we update the reader with intervening discoveries that underpin our current understanding of muscle microcirculatory control and place a retrospectroscope on Krogh's discoveries. The perspective is presented that the imprimatur of the Nobel Prize, in this instance, may have led scientists to discount compelling evidence. Much as he and Marie Krogh demonstrated that active transport of gases across the blood-gas barrier was unnecessary in the lung, capillaries in skeletal muscle do not open and close spontaneously or actively, nor is this necessary to account for the increase in blood-muscle O2 flux during exercise. Thus, a contemporary model of capillary function features most muscle capillaries supporting blood flow at rest, and, rather than capillaries actively vasodilating from rest to exercise, increased blood-myocyte O2 flux occurs predominantly via elevating red blood cell and plasma flux in already flowing capillaries. Krogh is lauded for his brilliance as an experimentalist and for raising scientific questions that led to fertile avenues of investigation, including the study of microvascular function. (Figure presented.).

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Physiology
Pages (from-to)4473-4507
Number of pages35
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2020

    Research areas

  • blood-myocyte oxygen flux, capillary, diffusion distances, exercise, longitudinal capillary recruitment, muscle microcirculation, oxygen uptake kinetics

See relations at Aarhus University Citationformats

ID: 199568374