Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are generated as by-products of aerobic respiration and metabolism. Mammalian cells have evolved a variety of enzymatic mechanisms to control ROS production, one of the central elements in signal transduction pathways involved in cell proliferation, differentiation and apoptosis. Antioxidants also ensure defenses against ROS-induced damage to lipids, proteins and DNA. ROS and antioxidants have been implicated in the regulation of reproductive processes in both animal and human, such as cyclic luteal and endometrial changes, follicular development, ovulation, fertilization, embryogenesis, embryonic implantation, and placental differentiation and growth. In contrast, imbalances between ROS production and antioxidant systems induce oxidative stress that negatively impacts reproductive processes. High levels of ROS during embryonic, fetal and placental development are a feature of pregnancy. Consequently, oxidative stress has emerged as a likely promoter of several pregnancy-related disorders, such as spontaneous abortions, embryopathies, preeclampsia, fetal growth restriction, preterm labor and low birth weight. Nutritional and environmental factors may contribute to such adverse pregnancy outcomes and increase the susceptibility of offspring to disease. This occurs, at least in part, via impairment of the antioxidant defense systems and enhancement of ROS generation which alters cellular signalling and/or damage cellular macromolecules. The links between oxidative stress, the female reproductive system and development of adverse pregnancy outcomes, constitute important issues in human and animal reproductive medicine. This review summarizes the role of ROS in female reproductive processes and the state of knowledge on the association between ROS, oxidative stress, antioxidants and pregnancy outcomes in different mammalian species.
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