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What is Red Marrow?

By Katriena Knights
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Bone marrow is found inside the bones, and it functions to produce the body's blood cells through a process called hematopoiesis. Bone marrow comes in two types: red marrow and yellow marrow. Within the red bone marrow, red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets are manufactured. From the bone marrow, they are distributed throughout the body via the circulatory system.

Yellow marrow consists mostly of fat cells. In adults, yellow marrow is found primarily in the narrow middle portion of long bones such as the femur in the legs and humerus in the arms. This type of marrow does not create blood cells, but if the body needs to produce large quantities of blood, the yellow marrow can be transformed into red marrow.

All bone marrow is red when a person is born, but during maturation and aging, a portion of the marrow becomes yellow. In adults, about half of the bone marrow is red. Flat bones such as the skull, scapulae, ribs, pelvis and sternum contain red marrow, as do the rounded ends of the long bones.

Blood cells are produced by the transformation of hematopoietic stem cells, any one of which can become any one of the three types of blood cells. In a single day, the red marrow in the human body will create as many as 100 trillion blood cells. Some diseases such as leukemia are caused by a malfunction in the production of white blood cells and can be treated through a transplant of red marrow.

This marrow is sometimes referred to as myeloid tissue. Myeloid tissue is a particular kind of body tissue that is able to produce blood cells. Although the majority of this tissue is found in the red marrow, it also can be found in the spleen, liver and thymus. In some cases, these other organs will resume their function as haematopoietic organs, often leading to enlargement. During development of a fetus, the liver functions to produce blood cells, so it seems disproportionately large during various stages of development.

Other cells found in the red marrow include mesenchymal stem cells. These cells are found in the stroma, or the non-blood-producing parts of the bone marrow, and can differentiate into many types of cells, from osteoblasts that can produce bone to neurons or nerve cells. Mesemchymal stem cells remain of great interest to scientists who wish to harvest stem cells that can be used for various medicinal purposes such as to treat diabetes or other diseases.

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Discussion Comments
By Lindsay21 — On Jun 08, 2011

@PumpkinSpice - This happens because oxygen needs to bind with the hemoglobin in red blood cells to be transported throughout the body. The red marrow increases the number of red blood cells produced to make more hemoglobin available for the oxygen to bind with.

Those who live in high altitude locations for their whole lives are accustomed to this low level of oxygen, so there aren't many side effects despite the increased number of red blood cells produced by the red marrow. However, when people of lower altitudes move to higher altitudes, the changes in red blood cell production can be uncomfortable. They may have difficulty breathing, a rapid heart rate, edema (fluid release by the blood), and changes in blood pH levels.

By PumpkinSpice — On Jun 08, 2011

Did you know that people who live at high altitudes are more likely to have high red blood cell counts? I guess it has something to do with the low oxygen levels, but I'm not sure.

By Malachis — On Jun 05, 2011

Great overview -- I'm so glad that you went into red marrow in such detail, because it is really such a critical part of our health. I work in a doctor's office, and it really just amazes me how many conditions are connected to red marrow.

Take anemia, for instance. It happens when the red marrow fails to produce an adequate number of red blood cells. Anemia is fairly common, though it is usually related to low iron levels in mild cases -- and most people have no idea that it's actually connected to marrow! A low red blood cell count may cause fatigue, dizziness, weakness, headaches, and increased heart rate. Treatments for this type of anemia may include a high-protein diet, iron supplements, prescription medications, and red blood cell transfusions.

If red marrow produces elevated counts of red blood cells, it may be a sign of another health problem. Your doctor may run a blood test if he or she suspects you have hypoxia caused by lung disease or smoking, or you have been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide.

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