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Reactive oxygen species: toxic molecules or spark of life?

Sheldon Magder

Author Affiliations

McGill University Health Centre, Royal Victoria Hospital, Division of Critical Care, Pine Av W, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1A1

Critical Care 2006, 10:208  doi:10.1186/cc3992

Published: 3 February 2006


Increases in reactive oxygen species (ROS) and tissue evidence of oxidative injury are common in patients with inflammatory processes or tissue injury. This has led to many clinical attempts to scavenge ROS and reduce oxidative injury. However, we live in an oxygen rich environment and ROS and their chemical reactions are part of the basic chemical processes of normal metabolism. Accordingly, organisms have evolved sophisticated mechanisms to control these reactive molecules. Recently, it has become increasingly evident that ROS also play a role in the regulation of many intracellular signaling pathways that are important for normal cell growth and inflammatory responses that are essential for host defense. Thus, simply trying to scavenge ROS is likely not possible and potentially harmful. The 'normal' level of ROS will also likely vary in different tissues and even in different parts of cells. In this paper, the terminology and basic chemistry of reactive species are reviewed. Examples and mechanisms of tissue injury by ROS as well as their positive role as signaling molecules are discussed. Hopefully, a better understanding of the nature of ROS will lead to better planned therapeutic attempts to manipulate the concentrations of these important molecules. We need to regulate ROS, not eradicate them.