Special relationship between sterols and oxygen: were sterols an adaptation to aerobic life?

Free Radic Biol Med. 2009 Sep 15;47(6):880-9. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2009.06.027. Epub 2009 Jun 25.


A fascinating link between sterols and molecular oxygen (O(2)) has been a common thread running through the fundamental work of Konrad Bloch, who elucidated the biosynthetic pathway for cholesterol, to recent work supporting a role of sterols in the sensing of O(2). Synthesis of sterols by eukaryotes is an O(2)-intensive process. In this review, we argue that increased levels of O(2) in the atmosphere not only made the evolution of sterols possible, but that these sterols may in turn have provided the eukaryote with an early defence mechanism against O(2). The idea that nature crafted sterols as a feedback loop to adapt to, or help protect against, the hazards of O(2) is novel and enticing. We marshal several lines of evidence to support this thesis: (1) coincidence of atmospheric O(2) and sterol evolution; (2) sterols regulate O(2) entry into eukaryotic cells and organelles; (3) sterols act as O(2) sensors across eukaryotic life; (4) sterols serve as a primitive cellular defence against O(2) (including reactive oxygen species). Therefore, sterols may have evolved in eukaryotes partially as an adaptive response to the rise of terrestrial O(2), rather than merely as a consequence of it.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aerobiosis*
  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / chemistry
  • Antioxidants / metabolism*
  • Atmospheric Pressure
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Feedback, Physiological
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Oxygen / chemistry
  • Oxygen / metabolism*
  • Sterols / chemistry
  • Sterols / metabolism*


  • Antioxidants
  • Sterols
  • Oxygen