Free Radicals - Information And Ideas
Concept Radical is an art competition of artists' impressions of free radicals. So what are free radicals?
Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly-
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
That motley drama- oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore,
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.
Edgar Allan Poe, from The Conqueror Worm
As in the poem, we can’t see free radicals yet they are everywhere, in the air, our bodies, and the materials around us. We can, however, observe the consequences of their action. They cause the deterioration of plastics, the fading of paint, the degradation of works of art, aging related illnesses, and can contribute to heart attacks, stroke and cancers.
Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons. The laws of chemistry dictate that electrons prefer to be paired. Free radicals are therefore disharmonious molecules. In their quest to find another electron, they are very reactive and will seek to “steal” an electron from a surrounding molecule. By doing this they will satisfy their own desire for paired electrons but will cause damage to the other molecule. If this molecule is DNA or proteins in the body this can lead to disease, or if in materials such as paint and plastics it can lead to failure of the material. Perhaps more importantly the other molecule will become a free radical with fresh desire continuing the cycle of destruction.
The path by which we twain did go,
Which led by tracts that pleased us well,
Thro’ four sweet years arose and fell,
From flower to flower, from snow to snow:
And we with singing cheer’d the way,
And, crown’d with all the season lent,
From April on to April went,
And glad at heart from May to May:
But where the path we walk’d began
To slant the fifth autumnal slope,
As we descended following Hope,
There sat the Shadow fear’d of man;
Who broke our fair companionship,
And spread his mantle dark and cold,
And wrapt thee formless in the fold,
And dull’d the murmur on thy lip,
And bore thee where I could not see
Nor follow, tho’ I walk in haste,
And think, that somewhere in the waste
The Shadow sits and waits for me.
Lord Tennyson, from In Memoriam XXII
In the extract from Lord Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam, the Shadow can be likened to a free radical seeking an electron to steal and after doing so, leaving a behind a disheartened molecule, who will eventually become the “Shadow” themselves.
We can draw a parallel between the actions of free radicals and many human emotions such as loss, jealousy, greed, desire, and anger.
Although the consequences of free radical behaviour are often slow to reveal themselves, the gradual ageing, decay and destruction is real for all to observe. An apt description is the poem, Crumbling is not an instant’s Act by Emily Dickinson.
Crumbling is not an instant's Act
A fundamental pause
Are organized Decays.
'Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust --
Ruin is formal -- Devil's work
Consecutive and slow --
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping -- is Crash's law.
Emily Dickinson, Crumbling is not an instant’s Act.
Fortunately our bodies produce antioxidants that offer some protection from the damaging effects of free radicals. Good quality paints and plastics often contain products like antioxidants that protect the material from free radicals in the environment. In essence antioxidants provide hope in what would be an otherwise barren existence, much like Thomas Hardy’s Darkling Thrush.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
Thomas Hardy, from Darkling Thrush
Despite the negative aspects of free radicals, they are essential for our survival. They help important reactions in our bodies take place that would otherwise be impossible. For example, they are used by our immune systems to kill invading bacteria, and are integral in allowing communication between our different tissues and organs, an important consideration for an efficiently functioning body. Free radicals can also be used to manufacture pharmaceuticals, custom-designed plastics and other innovative materials. Indeed oxygen is a free radical and crucial for our survival. It needs to be a free radical for our bodies to use it, but by breathing it we subject our bodies to the damage it can cause and therefore to gradual ageing.
It is truly one of the great paradoxes of life- what sustains us is also what decays us and leads to our inevitable demise.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry and Biotechnology