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Free Radic Res. 1994 Oct;21(5):317-27.

Low mitochondrial free radical production per unit O2 consumption can explain the simultaneous presence of high longevity and high aerobic metabolic rate in birds.

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Department of Animal Biology-II (Animal Physiology), Faculty of Biology, Complutense University, Madrid, Spain.


Birds are unique since they can combine a high rate of oxygen consumption at rest with a high maximum life span (MLSP). The reasons for this capacity are unknown. A similar situation is present in primates including humans which show MLSPs higher than predicted from their rates of O2 consumption. In this work rates of oxygen radical production and O2 consumption by mitochondria were compared between adult male rats (MLSP = 4 years) and adult pigeons (MLSP = 35 years), animals of similar body size. Both the O2 consumption of the whole animal at rest and the O2 consumption of brain, lung and liver mitochondria were higher in the pigeon than in the rat. Nevertheless, mitochondrial free radical production was 2-4 times lower in pigeon than in rat tissues. This is possible because pigeon mitochondria show a rate of free radical production per unit O2 consumed one order of magnitude lower than rat mitochondria: bird mitochondria show a lower free radical leak at the respiratory chain. This result, described here for the first time, can possibly explain the capacity of birds to simultaneously increase maximum longevity and basal metabolic rate. It also suggests that the main factor relating oxidative stress to aging and longevity is not the rate of oxygen consumption but the rate of oxygen radical production. Previous inconsistencies of the rate of living theory of aging can be explained by a free radical theory of aging which focuses on the rate of oxygen radical production and on local damage to targets relevant for aging situated near the places where free radicals are continuously generated.

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