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The liver is an organ in vertebrates including humans. It plays a major role in metabolism and has a number of functions in the body including detoxification, glycogen storage and plasma protein synthesis. It also produces bile which is important for digestion. Medical terms related to the liver often start in hepato- or hepatic from the Greek word hepar for "liver".



Human liver, view from above
View from below

The adult human liver normally weighs between 1.0 - 2.5 kilograms, and is a soft, reddish-brown "wedge-shaped" organ. It is the largest organ in the abdomen and sits immediately under the diaphragm on the right side of the upper abdomen. The liver lies anterior to the gallbladder and superior to the right kidney.

The liver is supplied by two major blood vessels: the hepatic artery and the portal vein. The hepatic artery normally comes off the celiac trunk. The portal vein brings venous blood from the digestive tract, so that the liver can process the nutrients and toxins extracted from food. The hepatic veins drain directly into the inferior vena cava.

The bile produced in the liver is collected in bile capillaries which merge to form bile ducts. These eventually drain into the right and left hepatic ducts, which in turn merge to form the common hepatic duct. The cystic duct (from the gallbladder) joins with the common hepatic duct to form the common bile duct. Bile can either drain directly into the duodenum via the common bile duct or be temporarily stored in the gallbladder via the cystic duct. The common bile duct and the pancreatic duct enter the duodenum together at the Ampulla of Vater. The branchings of the bile ducts resemble those of a tree, and indeed the term "biliary tree" is commonly used in this setting.

It is unique as the only human organ capable of natural regeneration of lost tissue.

Surface anatomy

Apart from a patch where it connects to the diaphragm, the liver is covered entirely by visceral peritoneum, a thin, double-layered membrane that reduces friction against other organs. The peritoneum folds back on itself to form the falciform ligament and the right and left triangular ligaments. These "ligaments" are in no way related to the true anatomic ligaments in joints, and have essentially no functional importance, but they are easily recognizable surface landmarks. Traditional gross anatomy divided the liver into four lobes based on surface features.

The falciform ligament is visible on the front (anterior side) of the liver. This divides the liver into a left anatomical lobe, and a right anatomical lobe.

If the liver is flipped over, to look at it from behind (the visceral surface), there are two additional lobes between the right and left. These are the caudate lobe (the more superior), and below this the quadrate lobe.

From behind, the lobes are divided up by the ligamentum venosum and ligamentum teres (anything left of these is the left lobe), the transverse fissure (or porta hepatis) divides the caudate from the quadrate lobe, and the right sagittal fossa, which the inferior vena cava runs over, separates these two lobes from the right lobe.

Functional anatomy

For purposes such as advanced liver surgery, it is crucial to understand the organization of liver based on blood supply and biliary drainage. The central area where the common bile duct, portal vein, and hepatic artery enter the liver is the hilum or "porta hepatis". The duct, vein, and artery divide into left and right branches, and the portions of the liver supplied by these branches constitute the functional left and right lobes. The functional lobes are separated by a plane joining the gallbladder fossa to the inferior vena cava. In the widely used Couinaud or "French" system, the functional lobes are further divided into a total of eight segments based on secondary and tertiary branching of the blood supply. The segments corresponding to the surface anatomical lobes are as follows:

Lobe Couinaud segments
Caudate 1
Left 2, 3
Quadrate 4
Right 5, 6, 7, 8

Fetal blood supply

In the growing fetus, a major source of blood to the liver is the umbilical vein which supplies nutrients to the growing fetus. The umbilical vein enters the abdomen at the umbilicus, and passes upward along the free margin of the falciform ligament of the liver to the inferior surface of the liver. There it joins with the left branch of the portal vein. The ductus venosus carries blood from the left portal vein to the left hepatic vein and thence to the inferior vena cava, allowing placental blood to bypass the liver.

After birth, the umbilical vein and ductus venosus are completely obliterated two to five days postpartum; the former becomes the ligamentum teres and the latter becomes the ligamentum venosum . In the disease state of cirrhosis and portal hypertension, the umbilical vein can open up again.


The various functions of the liver are carried out by the liver cells or hepatocytes.

Producing an artifical organ or device capable of emulating most functions of the liver is outside the reach of science in the foreseeable future.

Diseases of the liver

Many diseases of the liver are accompanied by jaundice caused by increased levels of bilirubin in the system. The bilirubin results from the breakup of the hemoglobin of dead red blood cells; normally, the liver removes bilirubin from the blood and excretes it through bile.

A number of liver function tests are available to test the proper function of the liver. These are enzymes that are most abundant in liver tissue, metabolites or products.

Liver transplantation

Liver transplantation is an option for those with irreversible liver failure. Most transplants are done for chronic liver diseases leading to cirrhosis, such as chronic hepatitis C, alcoholism, autoimmune hepatitis, and many others. Less commonly, liver transplantation is done for fulminant hepatic failure , in which liver failure occurs over days to weeks. Liver allografts for transplant usually come from non-living donors who have died from fatal brain injury. Living donor liver transplantation is a technique in which a portion of a living person's liver is removed and used to replace the entire liver of the recipient. This was first performed in 1989 for pediatric liver transplantation. Only 20% of an adult's liver (Couinaud segments 2 and 3) is needed to serve as a liver allograft for an infant or small child. More recently, adult-to-adult liver transplantation has been done using the donor's right hepatic lobe which amounts to 60% of the liver. Due to the ability of the liver to regenerate, both the donor and recipient end up with normal liver function if all goes well. This procedure is more controversial as it entails performing a much larger operation on the donor, and indeed there have been at least two donor deaths out of the first several hundred cases.

Analogous organs

Arthropods have a digestive gland that functions like a combination of the liver and the pancreas. In insects this organ is known as the fat body .


The following are standard medical textbooks.

  • Eugene R. Schiff, Michael F. Sorrell, Willis C. Maddrey, eds. Schiff's diseases of the liver, 9th ed. Philadelphia : Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2003. ISBN 0781730074
  • Sheila Sherlock, James Dooley. Diseases of the liver and biliary system, 11th ed. Oxford, UK ; Malden, MA : Blackwell Science. 2002. ISBN 0632055820
  • David Zakim, Thomas D. Boyer. eds. Hepatology : a textbook of liver disease, 4th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders. 2003. ISBN 0721690513

Rehash of science for the lay reader:

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