During primate evolution, a major factor in lengthening life-span and decreasing age-specific cancer rates may have been improved protective mechanisms against oxygen radicals. We propose that one of these protective systems is plasma uric acid, the level of which increased markedly during primate evolution as a consequence of a series of mutations. Uric acid is a powerful antioxidant and is a scavenger of singlet oxygen and radicals. We show that, at physiological concentrations, urate reduces the oxo-heme oxidant formed by peroxide reaction with hemoglobin, protects erythrocyte ghosts against lipid peroxidation, and protects erythrocytes from peroxidative damage leading to lysis. Urate is about as effective an antioxidant as ascorbate in these experiments. Urate is much more easily oxidized than deoxynucleosides by singlet oxygen and is destroyed by hydroxyl radicals at a comparable rate. The plasma urate levels in humans (about 300 microM) is considerably higher than the ascorbate level, making it one of the major antioxidants in humans. Previous work on urate reported in the literature supports our experiments and interpretations, although the findings were not discussed in a physiological context.