Everyone knows how important Oxygen is to the body: we will die without it within moments. However, Oxygen is also a known toxin to the body, instigating chains of chemical reactions inside the body that can produce numerous Free Radicals, super-reactive molecules that wreak havoc inside human cells. Nick Lane in his book, OXYGEN: The Molecule That Made The World, goes so far as to claim that even an Oxygen reaction so seemingly benign as Respiration is actually “a very slow form of Oxygen poisoning.”
Lane describes the Free Radicals produced by Oxygenic reactions in the body as unstable molecules “in search of stability.” Due to this harried search for stability, most Free Radicals are highly reactive chaos-causers. Sometimes this chaos can take the form of chain reactions that have been linked to cancer.
During Respiration, a continual process that we take for granted, Oxygen is used by the body to begin a series of reactions. During the course of this set of reactions, several Free Radicals can be formed: 1) the SuperOxide Radical, 2) Hydrogen Peroxide, and 3) the Hydroxyl Radical.
Of the three, the Hydroxyl Radical is probably the most dangerous. Lane calls it “a ferocious molecule that is among the most reactive substances known.” Promiscuous to the Nth degree, the Hydroxyl Radical will react with pretty much the first molecule it comes in contact with, usually staying single for only a few billionths of second. Unfortunately for us, the Hydroxyl Radical is always looking for love in all the wrong places—in otherwise stable and productive components of our cellular metabolism.
Hydrogen Peroxide and the SuperOxide Radical are less reactive, but they can become dangerous when they come in contact with metals in the body, especially Iron. Therefore, says Lane, the body has to keep such reactive metals “well-caged” inside proteins.
SuperOxide Radicals escape into the body in one or two out of a hundred Oxygen reactions inside of cells. However, according Lane, the production of SuperOxide Radicals actually INCREASES during vigorous exercise, with SuperOxide Radicals escaping in up to one out of ten oxygen reactions. …And here I thought my thrice-weekly jogs were HELPING me stay healthy (Of course, as slow as I jog, my exercise might not qualify as “vigorous.”)
When Free Radical outbreaks increase beyond the capacity of the body’s Anti-Oxidant protections to contain them easily, the body is said to exist in a state of Oxidative Stress. Oxidative Stress can be triggered by several different mechanisms, not just Oxygen reactions.
One potent way of creating Oxidative Stress is via radiation– not just the ionizing radiation of Uranium and other such radioactive materials, but also by the ultraviolet radiation showered on the Earth by the Sun. Lane believes that during Earth’s early days, when Oxygen levels were beginning to rise, organisms were extremely vulnerable to Oxygen toxicity, for they had not yet built-up any specifically anti-Oxygen defenses. However because these organisms had long been dealing with the Oxidative Stress caused by ultraviolet radiation, they already possessed the basic tools to combat the increased levels of Oxidative Stress due to Oxygen intake. A fortuitous coincidence (?) from the standpoint of Life As We Know It.
While talking about the different pathways that can lead to Oxidative Stress, such as Oxygen toxicity and radiation, Lane also points out that Malaria can lead to Oxidative Stress and can thus trigger the same defensive mechanisms that the body produces to combat Oxygen or radiation poisoning. This led to me to wonder if some attenuated or controlled Malaria strain could somehow be used as one component of treatment against radiation poisoning. Specifically, I wonder if we could use it to super-charge our Anti-Oxidative-Stress mechanism, thus using our own body to fight off the ill effects of radiation exposure. Admittedly, it’s a science-fictiony idea, but someone’s got to ask the idiotic questions for the sake of progress, right?
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