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digestive system, in the animal kingdom, a group of organs functioning in digestion and assimilation of food and elimination of wastes. Virtually all animals have a digestive system. In the vertebrates (phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata) the digestive system is very complex. It consists of the gastrointestinal tract (gut), an extensive tube extending from the mouth to the anus, through which the swallowing, digestion, and assimilation of food and the elimination of waste products are accomplished.
The Human Digestive System
In the digestive system, ingested food is converted into a form that can be absorbed into the circulatory system for distribution to and utilization by the various tissues of the body. This is accomplished both physically, by mastication in the mouth and churning of the stomach, and chemically, by secretions and enzymes of the gastrointestinal tract. Beginning at the mouth, all food passes through the alimentary canal (pharynx, esophagus, stomach, and intestines) before it reaches the anus, where undigested matter is eliminated as waste. The outer walls of the digestive tract are composed of layers of muscle and tissue that undergo waves of contraction (peristalsis), thereby pushing the food along its digestive path. The inner lining contains glands that secrete the acids and enzymes necessary to break down food into a form utilizable by the body.
Digestion begins in the mouth, where chewing reduces the food to fine texture, and saliva moistens it and begins the conversion of starch into simple sugars by means of an enzyme, salivary amylase. The food is then swallowed, passing through the pharynx and down the muscular esophagus, or gullet, to the expanded muscular pouchlike section of the gastrointestinal tract, the stomach. Specialized cells in the stomach secrete digestive enzymes and gastric juices, which act on the partially digested food. The stomach also physically churns and mixes the food. The stomach secretions include the enzyme pepsin, which acts on proteins; hydrochloric acid, essential for the action of pepsin; and an enzyme, gastric lipase, which begins the breakdown of fats. The gastric juices of young children contain, in addition to those just mentioned, the enzyme rennin, which acts on milk. Some foods, including simple sugars and alcohol, are absorbed directly through the stomach wall and do not remain in the stomach. Most food, however, is not absorbed in the stomach and passes into the duodenum (first section of the small intestine) in the form of a thick liquid called chyme.
Digestive enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the liver act on the chyme in the duodenum. These enzymes include pancreatic lipase, which breaks down fats into glycerol and fatty acids; pancreatic amylase, which continues the breakdown of starches and most other carbohydrates into disaccharides; and trypsin and erepsin, which break down whole and partially digested proteins (proteoses and peptones) into amino acids, the end products of protein digestion. Bile is essential for emulsifying large fat globules into smaller ones that are more easily digested by pancreatic lipase. In addition, intestinal juices are secreted by small glands in the intestinal wall called the crypts of Lieberkühn. Like the pancreatic juices, intestinal juices contain enzymes that continue the digestion of proteins and fats and also contain three enzymes that break down disaccharides into glucose, galactose, and fructose (simple sugars). The digested food is absorbed into the circulatory and lymphatic systems through small fingerlike projections of the intestinal wall, called villi. Undigested material passes into the large intestine, where most of the water is absorbed and the solid material, or feces, is excreted through the anus.
See J. E. Morton, Guts: The Form and Function of the Digestive System (1967); H. W. Davenport, Physiology of the Digestive Tract: An Introductory Text (3d ed. 1971).