In the late 19th and early 20th century, extensive study was devoted to the uses of antioxidants in important industrial processes, such as the prevention of metal corrosion, the vulcanization of rubber, and the polymerization of fuels in the fouling of internal combustion engines.
Early research on the role of antioxidants in biology focused on their use in preventing the oxidation of unsaturated fats, which is the cause of rancidity. Antioxidant activity could be measured simply by placing the fat in a closed container with oxygen and measuring the rate of oxygen consumption. However, it was the identification of vitamins A, C, and E as antioxidants that revolutionized the field and led to the realization of the importance of antioxidants in the biochemistry of living organisms.
Further information: Oxidative stress
The structure of the antioxidant vitamin ascorbic acid (vitamin C).
A paradox in metabolism is that while the vast majority of complex life on Earth requires oxygen for its existence, oxygen is a highly reactive molecule that damages living organisms by producing reactive oxygen species. Consequently, organisms contain a complex network of antioxidant metabolites and enzymes that work together to prevent oxidative damage to cellular components such as DNA, proteins and lipids. In general, antioxidant systems either prevent these reactive species from being formed, or remove them before they can damage vital components of the cell. However, since reactive oxygen species do have useful functions in cells, such as redox signaling, the function of antioxidant systems is not to remove oxidants entirely, but instead to keep them at an optimum level.
The reactive oxygen species produced in cells include hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), hypochlorous acid (HOCl), and free radicals such as the hydroxyl radical (·OH) and the superoxide anion ( View More »