Free radical theory of aging, 50 years on

The idea that free radicals/reactive oxygen species are responsible for aging is half a century old. For its golden anniversary, Muller et al. summarize recent germane observations:

Trends in oxidative aging theories

The early observations on the rate-of-living theory by Max Rubner and the report by Gershman that oxygen free radicals exist in vivo culminated in the seminal proposal in the 1950s by Denham Harman that reactive oxygen species are a cause of aging (free radical theory of aging). The goal of this review is to analyze recent findings relevant in evaluating Harman’s theory using experimental results as grouped by model organisms (i.e., invertebrate models and mice). In this regard, we have focused primarily on recent work involving genetic manipulations. Because the free radical theory of aging is not the only theorem proposed to explain the mechanism(s) involved in aging at the molecular level, we also discuss how this theory is related to other areas of research in biogerontology, specifically, telomere/cell senescence, genomic instability, and the mitochondrial hypothesis of aging. We also discuss where we think the free radical theory is headed. It is now possible to give at least a partial answer to the question whether oxidative stress determines life span as Harman posed so long ago. Based on studies to date, we argue that a tentative case for oxidative stress as a life-span determinant can be made in Drosophila melanogaster. Studies in mice argue for a role of oxidative stress in age-related disease, especially cancer; however, with regard to aging per se, the data either do not support or remain inconclusive on whether oxidative stress determines life span.

One nice feature of the piece is the treatment of other fields alongside oxidation. Too often in biogerontology, our approach to the subject determines our perspective — a classic example of stroking the elephant. As the field matures, more theorists are emphasizing the connections between its many facets, giving me hope for more rapid progress over the next fifty years.