Oxygen Can Be Both Friend and Foe
A simple analogy and oxygenation example in this case is quite useful to understand the two faces of oxygen. One face is that it gives and sustains our lives, while the other darker face is that it actually causes us harm!
Staying Between the Lines
As long as the oxygen within our bodies is directed into aerobic processes like the Krebs cycle, everything works perfectly. It's like the cars speeding down the highway at sixty miles an hour. As long as they stay in their lanes, traffic flows along nicely and everyone is safe. But if the system of lanes breaks down and cars start moving around in every possible direction, then the situation immediately becomes dangerous and inefficient. It's the same way with oxygen, except that instead of painted lines to mark off lanes, our bodies have highly developed systems of antioxidants that try to keep atoms of oxygen travelling in the right direction – into the Krebs cycle – and prevent them from making trouble elsewhere in the body.
Some of the body's major antioxidant systems include glutathione peroxidase and glutathione reductase, superoxide dismutase, catalase, and cytochrome P450. Some of these substances and the biochemical pathways they define are meant to keep oxygen heading in the right direction while others aim to keep it from heading off in the wrong direction.
The US Navy has a fleet of nuclear submarines. These remarkable ships are capable of remaining submerged in the ocean for months at a time as they travel the world. The energy needed to power these huge vessels comes from compact nuclear reactors that tap the energy of atomic nuclei to generate heat. In addition to driving the submarine, this heat is used for everything on board – from scrubbing and recharging the air that the seaman breathe to purifying the water they drink to providing the electricity to power the radar, communication, and information systems that keep them in touch and on track. If the nuclear generator on board were to fail, the lives of the crew would be imperilled.
On the other hand, the nuclear fuel needs to stay deep within the core of the reactor. Even though it produces the life-giving energy that every person on board depends on, the fuel itself is toxic. A few moments of direct exposure would create a lethal dose of radiation poisoning. The nuclear fuel must be kept within very specific “lanes” – in this case, the physical shielding of the reactor core. It’s the same with oxygen. It gives us life, but only when it is directed to and kept within the “core” of the biochemical processes that use oxygen to make energy. Just like the nuclear fuel escaping from the core, oxygen that escapes from the bounds of our antioxidant systems becomes very, very dangerous.
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