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IUBMB Life. 2000 Oct-Nov;50(4-5):279-89.

Oxidative stress, antioxidant defenses, and damage removal, repair, and replacement systems.

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Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center and Division of Molecular Biology, The University of Southern California, Los Angeles 90089-0191, USA.


Oxidative stress is an unavoidable consequence of life in an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Oxygen radicals and other activated oxygen species are generated as by-products of aerobic metabolism and exposure to various natural and synthetic toxicants. The "Oxygen Paradox" is that oxygen is dangerous to the very life-forms for which it has become an essential component of energy production. The first defense against oxygen toxicity is the sharp gradient of oxygen tension, seen in all mammals, from the environmental level of 20% to a tissue concentration of only 3-4% oxygen. These relatively low tissue levels of oxygen prevent most oxidative damage from ever occurring. Cells, tissues, organs, and organisms utilize multiple layers of antioxidant defenses and damage removal, and replacement or repair systems in order to cope with the remaining stress and damage that oxygen engenders. The enzymes comprising many of these protective systems are inducible under conditions of oxidative stress adaptation, in which the expression of over 40 mammalian genes is upregulated. Mitotic cells have the additional defensive ability of entering a transient growth-arrested state (in the first stages of adaptation) in which DNA is protected by histone proteins, energy is conserved by diminished expression of nonessential genes, and the expression of shock and stress proteins is greatly increased. Failure to fully cope with an oxidative stress can switch mitotic cells into a permanent growth-arrested, senescence-like state in which they may survive for long periods. Faced with even more severe oxidative stress, or the declining protective enzymes and adaptive capacity associated with aging, cells may "sacrifice themselves" by apoptosis, which protects surrounding healthy tissue from further damage. Only under the most severe oxidative stress conditions will cells undergo a necrotic death, which exposes surrounding tissues to the further vicissitudes of an inflammatory immune response. This remarkable array of systems for defense; damage removal, replacement, and repair; adaptation; growth modulation; and apoptosis make it possible for us to enjoy life in an oxygen-rich environment.

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