Reactive Oxygen Species: Drivers of Physiological and Pathological Processes

J Inflamm Res. 2020 Dec 2:13:1057-1073. doi: 10.2147/JIR.S275595. eCollection 2020.


Since the Great Oxidation Event, about 2.4 billion years ago, the Earth is immersed in an oxidizing atmosphere. Thus, it has been proposed that excess oxygen, originally a waste product of photosynthetic cyanobacteria, induced oxidative stress and the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which have since acted as fundamental drivers of biologic evolution and eukaryogenesis. Indeed, throughout an organism's lifespan, ROS affect directly (as mutagens) or indirectly (as messengers and regulators) all structural and functional components of cells, and many aspects of cell biology. Whether left unchecked by protective antioxidant systems, excess ROS not only cause genomic mutations but also induce irreversible oxidative modification of proteins (protein oxidation and peroxidation), lipids and glycans (advanced lipoxidation and glycation end products), impairing their function and promoting disease or cell death. Conversely, low-level local ROS play an important role both as redox-signaling molecules in a wide spectrum of pathways involved in the maintenance of cellular homeostasis (MAPK/ERK, PTK/PTP, PI3K-AKT-mTOR), and regulating key transcription factors (NFκB/IκB, Nrf2/KEAP1, AP-1, p53, HIF-1). Consequently, ROS can shape a variety of cellular functions, including proliferation, differentiation, migration and apoptosis. In this review, we will give a brief overview of the relevance of ROS in both physiological and pathological processes, particularly inflammation and aging. In-depth knowledge of the molecular mechanisms of ROS actuation and their influence under steady-state and stressful conditions will pave the way for the development of novel therapeutic interventions. This will mitigate the harmful outcomes of ROS in the onset and progression of a variety of chronic inflammatory and age-related diseases.

Keywords: inflammation; oxidative stress; reactive oxygen species.

Publication types

  • Review